I have to admit that I had quite a difficult time getting into this book. I think the time of year (even self-employed, working from home and fairly unsociable as I am, I had a couple of seasonal activities) and the fact that I slightly overworked myself in the last few weeks meant that I didn’t get the discrete slabs of time you need to really worm your way in to a Murdoch novel. I felt like I wasn’t “getting” it and even a bit dim. I even considered whether I should be doing this at all! But I think it was a temporary blip – I’ve never thought that much about this novel in between reads (this was my fourth time with it) and it’s always languished in a middle ground between the favourites and the least-favourites. So let’s push on with my notes and see what everyone else thought about it. I can’t remember if I had such lulls last time I did them all (maybe any readers who were with me then can remember?) but I know I went to one every two months at some stage, which is not going to happen this time as I want to finish in IM’s centenary year!

Iris Murdoch – “An Accidental Man”

(August 2018)

The main idea in this book read this time appears to be that if you associate with someone with bad luck, that bad luck is somehow evil and will rub off on you. There’s also a delicious parody at one point which shows that IM knew exactly what kind of reputation her books were getting. Apart from that, it’s a baggy (before the baggy monsters) book with a lot of characters, all related to one another, and I even went as far as to do an inept relationship map to show this (wait until the end for that …). We do have our favourite themes, including the good old Pursuit Of A Fleeing Woman.

So Austin Gibson Grey is an unlucky man who has a dodgy hand, a dead wife and now a fey wife he appears to have mislaid; he loses his job and ends up renting out his flat and moving in with ex-athlete Mitzi (I do love Mitzi). Meanwhile the Tisbournes extend their tentacles through the book – Clara and George the do-gooders who want to have everyone to live in their house, Clara’s sister Charlotte who is just finishing nursing their mother and continues nursing her bitterness, and Gracie, self-possessed and scary, engaged to nice Ludwig who has dodged the draft. Throw in fey Dorina’s nun-like/ non-nun sister Mavis, Austin’s portly non-monk brother Matthew and a few lower-class characters, plus po-faced Garth, son of Austin and friend of Ludwig and a few extra families, plus a boutique whose rise and fall is charted only through letters and cocktail party chat, and a book that’s partly made up of chapters entirely full of letters and cocktail party chat and you’ve got a recipe for confusion it would take a cleverer person than me to pick through entirely successfully.

We have good examples of Murdochian themes. Who isn’t a sibling? – we have Gracie and Patrick, Ralph and Sebastian, Austin and Matthew, Dorina and Mavis, Clara and Charlotte. Doubling and patterning can then occur, with Matthew having possible affairs with Dorina and Betty, Dorina and Mavis, and Gracie and Sebastian / Patrick and Ralph. More doubling occurs with Austin killing a child and an owl, two innocent children, two large houses, London and Oxford as centres, Britain and America. Garth and Matthew have both seen, and passed by, a violent scene of danger and death, which somehow draws them together. Charlotte and Mitzi both attempt to take overdoses of sleeping pills and end up making friends in hospital; the person who succeeds in taking her own life does it by accident.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Is Ludwig a saint? He’s the first person we see surrounded by muddle: “Of course it was no accident that he’d mismanaged the whole thing so horribly. this particular muddle he recognized as, for himself, characteristic.” (p. 7). He quietly does the right thing in the end, but is he really saintly? He also debunks Garth’s odd rantings with quiet simplicity. But then he does basically force himself on Gracie which is not nice at all and quite disturbing. Garth seems to be trying too hard to be saintly, although both of them do seem to learn and change through the course of the book, Garth certainly finding consolation and power in serving others in small ways. Or is Dorina our saint, always in a muddle, “her compassion […] part of her own helplessness” (p. 42)? Then again, Mavis has achieved mid-novel “a sort of colourless see-through blow-through existence, full of tasks and without ties” (p. 47) and it feels like she does end up renouncing Matthew as he’s just too busy to see her. But she eschews “the hot muddled personal unhappiness of the ordinary human lot” (p. 50). I don’t know the answer here, to be fair.

Matthew seems to be the enchanter, with his terrible attractiveness and Eastern accompaniments (he feels a bit like a failed and lesser version of James Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea” to me). He tries to pass this role on to Garth, leaving him to listen to people, showing his enchantership is created by others, not out of a wish to control. Garth has already described him as “A false prophet […] an entangler. He’ll entangle you if he can. He’s a fat charmer, charming his way to paradise. He’s the sort of person who makes everyone tell him their life story and then forgets it.” (p. 89) (here he reminds me of Julius from “A Fairly Honourable Defeat, who will read your letters but deny it). Matthew comes to the realisation at the end of the novel, however, that the everyday is to be his fate:

He would never be able to share in Kaoru’s mind. From the good good actions spring with a spontaneity which must remain to the mediocre forever mysterious. Matthew knew with a sigh that he would never be a hero. Nore would he ever achieve the true enlightenment. Neither the longer way nor the shorter way was for him. He would be until the end of his life a man looking forward to his next drink. He looked at his watch and drifted down to the bar. (p. 372)

In renouncing his attempts to be good and accepting his lot in life, is he in fact a saint? (I don’t know.)

Gracie is an odd character, determined and almost prissy in her desire to keep away from mess and contingency, whether that’s Austin’s “soupy sort of emotions” (p. 11) or Dorina. Ludwig is constantly surprised by her insight, but she almost seems like a chorus, outside the action (while part of it) maybe like N in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”).

There’s quite a nice lot of humour in this novel, seen from the beginning, when Ludwig is struggling with Gracie’s virginity, her narrow bed with a shelf over it and her “pussy cat” cushions. The horrible path of their courtship and engagement, tramping grimly round London looking at things is funny in a sad sort of way. Charlotte’s view of her sister’s marriage is great:

Had she ever loved George? Perhaps. But now George was just something hanging in the corner of a spider’s web. Clara had eaten and digested him long ago. (p. 81)

The story of Kierkegaard the car, told through letters, is hilarious and the letters in the main can be very funny. They include the wonderful:

It appears that Ralph loves Ann Colindale who loves Richard Pargeter who (currently, he never does anything for long) loves Karen who (although she denies it) loves Sebastian who loves me who loves Ludwig who loves me. So that’s that situation tied up. (p. 210)

Even Charlotte’s announcement that her mother is failing is quite funny: “‘Clare, is that you? This is Charlotte. I think she’s going.’ ‘Oh God. We’re dining with the Arbuthnots.'” (p.30). There’s also the horrible funniness of the struggle to interpret Alison’s last words: trees, priest or Treece? I found a savage humour in Dorina’s constant assertion that one cannot bend the knees too much, mis-remembering this as the words of a wise priest before, in her last moments, recalling that it came from a ski instructor.

Smaller themes that remind us of other books abound: someone has to be writing a book and here it’s Garth and his novel, as well as Mr Monkley and his, and Garth’s is even lost for most of the book. Water doesn’t play a huge part, with some rain and then of course Dorina’s fateful bath, and there are only two sets of stones: Gracie’s enormous diamond and the stones on Gracie and Ludwig’s Irish holiday beach. The canny nuns who don’t want to be lumbered with Valmorama remind me a little of the nuns from “The Bell”, more worldly-wise than you might expect. Matthew’s china is smashed like Mischa Fox’s fish tank and Rupert’s torn-up book. Dorina stands barefoot on the lawn and Austin even manages to climb over a wall and peer in the windows of Valmorama. This echoes so many other books, doesn’t it. There’s the usual amount of letter reading and stealing and a touch of real blackmail (the Monkley sub-plot foreshadows the underworld stuff in “Henry and Cato” to me. Austin’s disgusting state and room remind me of Tallis, however he’s no saint, is he? He sells his stamp collection in a wry nod to Bruno, surely? There’s the lovely dog, Pyrrhus, and his own pattern of belonging to people who break up and I love the paragraph from his viewpoint late on in the novel. And we end up with flight, as in “The Flight from the Enchanter” and “A Severed Head” and several other novels, with Ludwig on his way back to America and Matthew rather oddly following him. Finally, there’s a forward echo to “The Book and the Brotherhood” in that last party piece:

‘Aren’t we all getting grand.’

‘Anyway, we’re still socialists.’ (p. 376)

Relationship map in the back of my Penguin – I obviously thought it was an affair, not a tennis racquet, between Matthew and Betty last time around … Does this help at all?

On re-reading this book, it’s hard to re-read it knowing what’s going to happen to Dorina, somehow, although I had that happening earlier in the book. I think I liked Ludwig more and Charlotte and cheered her renaissance. I’d missed the shock of Ludwig basically forcing Gracie, which was uncomfortable to read this time; I’ve been a feminist since I started reading Murdoch (I did find quite a lot about the role of the single woman as propping up society this time, and how Charlotte could have been more than just a carer, and Clara’s loss of identity in wifehood and motherhood, which could almost be read through a feminist lens I don’t usually find in her). And I was cheered to read Matthew’s description of jogging! I was also pleased to note that Dorina is reading “Lord of the Rings”, having discovered in the Letters that IM enjoyed Tolkien herself – a nice little “Easter egg” for the careful reader.

I have the Vintage Classics edition and Valerie Cunningham’s introduction does cast this as a “bleak” “problem play” where even horror is undermined by farce, the characters despoil Murdoch’s favourite places and art and it’s all a pretty troubling and dark, so maybe I’m not alone in having difficulty with it. What did you think?

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.