Well, well well – I was worried about getting to this one as it’s traditionally been ‘the one I don’t really like’ but you could knock me down with a feather this time round (the third time of reading at very least; I can’t remember when I read them all before the time before last, unfortunately) as it wasn’t horrible! It was terribly Murdochian, full of themes and little echoes of the other books, and really not bad at all. OK, it’s never going to be my favourite, but I’m glad I ignored the friends who said, “If you don’t want to read it, don’t read it” and persisted with my Challenge!

A note on the edition: I’ve got the hardback and paperback first editions (Chatto & Windus and then Penguin) and I feel this is the only other one, a Vintage Classics one but one of the ones they didn’t do with a red spine, and with no additional introduction. It’s even the same print on the pages. Not great value and I sort of wish I hadn’t bothered. They certainly aren’t going to do this in their fancy new-new edition. Mind you, from now on it’s a first and a Penguin for all of us, as Vintage don’t appear to have ever published the final two novels.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Message to the Planet”

(28 December 2018)

As in “The Book and the Brotherhood”, we have another loose group of friends and their friends who met at university (or art college), only this time one of them is apparently dying, believing himself cursed by Marcus Vallar, a sort of Crimond-in-overdrive who turned his hand to maths and painting then vanished. But one of the friends has tracked him down and wants to bring him to the house where Jack, successful painter and trying to introduce his latest mistress into his house, is waited on by the ever-patient Franca, the worm who will never turn. Will Marcus return and un-curse Patrick? Is he a visionary or a madman? Set between London and a very posh psychiatric hospital and the village it’s near, the book examines truth and madness, Jewishness and faith, marriage and adultery.

In themes, we have hair, with Franca’s great big complicated bun coming down at moments of stress and Marcus’ red-gold hair, cropped savagely but still shining, as does Alison’s, growing out from one of those Murdoch pixie cuts. Water is always present, sheets of it front of grand houses and and characters talk by the Thames when in London. Marcus swims in the pool while Franca and Maisie indulge in some wild swimming in the river. Stones, of course, the Axle Stone the main one and lots of stones given as gifts or picked up and chinking together in Ludens’ pocket. As usual, people give each other stones, too. Maisie loves stones and collects them at her house: a good person, if not a saint. There are no animals until the dog at the end which signals and makes real Irina’s new situation – a really beautifully drawn dog, though!

There are lots of echoes – Franca burns papers when she moves in the house, Marcus and Irina when they move from the Red Cottage. Franca and then Alison proposition Ludens. Ludens and Patrick are doubled up as servants and devotees of Marcus (although Ludens does all the work afterwards). Ludens is given two stones, and there are two great houses with ponds in front of them. Ludens thinks of Marcus as his father, so he has two fathers (both true) as well as two mothers (one dead, true, one stepmother, false).

The book has the usual foreshadowings and doominess. We are told that Ludens’ last encounter with Marcus was somehow horrific and never spoken about (and find out what it was) and this extends to Ludens’ lodger writing to him with something to tell (which does eventually come out), and Ludens feels as if he is waiting for something to happen.

Marcus is clearly the enchanter figure here. He’s introduced as such from the beginning:

‘He damaged you,’ said Jack. ‘He was a bit of a cold fish. But he didn’t harm Ludens, and he positively helped me, he set me up!’ (p2)

He is described as having “stunned admirers” (p. 8) and we continue to see him from lots of different viewpoints, stressing the effect he has had on people, with his “air of superiority” (p. 9) although it’s noteworthy that women tend to find him “awful” (IM’s emphasis). He bewitches Fanny and then of course there’s the sort of collective hysteria of the Stone People and village folk (although the woman from the pub remains unconvinced and Ludens says it’s making him in to a charlatan). Jack even calls him “That old enchanter” (p. 348)

Who is the saint? I rather think it is Franca. Surely the fact that she is described as “concentrat[ing] her attention” on what Marcus is doing when he’s reanimating Patrick is significant, given IM’s insistence on attention as a virtue. Patrick has described Franca as a saint to Alison and Alison is infuriated by Franca’s “genuine – genuine goddamn unselfishness!” (p. 447). (However, this selfishness does win out in the end). Alison later, in her letter leaving Jack, refers to her “humble, I suppose saintly is the word, courage which enables her to stay in place” (p. 525). At the end, Franca has fought the battle “and been perfectly defeated” and has not a triumphant but a “relieved exhausted defeated smile” (p. 539) and perhaps this is what gives her her sainthood. However, it is Ludens who says “We just live in bottomless chaos and have to help each other, that’s all” (p. 166) which is a good portrayal of IM writing on how to be good. Wanting to be a saint, maybe, Marcus talks about the need to be “empty yet attentive” (p. 353) but I’m not sure he achieves this. Marzillian describes Marcus in terms of what “great saints and mystics” experience, but I don’t think he can be a saint, however much he’s worked miracles, as he doesn’t absorb pain and other people’s experiences but seems to upset and control people instead. Then, what about Gildas, defrocked priest, on the edges taking in things and not passing them on, and ending up evicted and poor but planning to

try out life at the bottom and see if it is possible to help other people, a thing incidentally which he never tried to do. (p. 560)

I very much liked Marcus’ amazement at what people saw in his paintings: he “could ‘see nothing’ of the so-called ‘meanings’, some of which shocked him very much” (p. 11) which echoes IM’s own comments on the reader seeing what they want to see in her novels (cf my work on Iris Murdoch and the Common Reader).  This flash of humour is an admittedly rare one in the book. The threatening figure of Marcus’ Japanese teacher, always looming around in his last flat, does raise a smile, but there’s little other outright humour that I could find (though some farce with letters, a mess made of moving Franca’s divan and some savage irony with leavings and settings-up-with). Maybe Franca is a bit amusing in a horrible way with her dead grey faces in the waves and image of dead babies while she watches Alison eating cake, and Ludens’ struggle with his trousers when preparing to go to bed with Irina is also funny for a few paragraphs. Ludens again gives us a smile as he approaches the fringes of madness:

When he had an image of the two stones fighting in his pocket Ludens decided to close down this line of thought unless he wished to become one of Marzillian’s patients. (p. 370)

IM’s feminist comments, long denied by me now seen everywhere rotate mainly around Franca and her situation. What seems almost natural in their Bohemian world is criticised strongly by the rather wonderful Maisie Tether, who also gets Franca painting again. Franca’s own art was lost when she married, and she’s seen as having lost the ability to stop all this mistresses by not putting her foot down at the beginning, although why she did not is plausibly explained: “Oh the lies women believe, and will to believe and want to believe!” (p. 171) or “too tired and too silly to realise you are able to go away” (p. 268). She has had her mother’s example, too, of course: “Her mother’s miserable docile life with that cruel man” (p. 406). The strongest words indeed are put in Maisie’s mouth:

I know about husbands, I know their little ways, I’ve watched them at work, thank God I never had one. He loves you and cherishes you but two painters in the family won’t do. You got married and decided you weren’t much good! That’s our history in a nutshell! Now isn’t it time for you to fight back? (p. 248)

So you prefer a permanent unfaithfulness to an occasional one, you collude in a situation which demeans you, and exposes him as a rotter! And if the girl enjoys it she must be a vulgar hussy! Are you living in a dream world? I find this disgusting, I pity you! (p. 250)

She even has something to say about education:

I can’t see the point of co-education, it’s always the girls who suffer, they have enough trouble with men without positively asking for it. (p. 266)

and I do like her complaint about nuns in short skirts! Alison takes to drink when she discovers “what a swindle it all was” (p. 448)

In links to other books, once again poor old Franca finds that Jack likes to see her “sewing or cooking or doing anything quiet and rhythmical in the house” (p. 22-3): I’m not sure when this sewing thing starts but it’s come up again and again in the more recent slew of the books. Patrick’s song about the silver spoon echoes the dying Guy’s song in “Nuns and Soldiers”. We have several instances of looking in and out of windows – Ludens looking in at Marcus, then Irina seen on the lawn with a bicycle. Then Ludens actually follows Irina through the twilight, and runs after the white figure of Fanny at the stone, so we’re back to flitting figures and their chasers, then Irina sees Fanny standing on the grass and later still Ludens follows Marcus through the dewy grass. There is talk by Marcus of metamorphosis – a big challenge –  and Ludens wonders if he’s having to go through an ordeal (cf every main character since about “Nuns and Soldiers”) and at the end is back in London, his quest over. Marcus describes his mind as being “like fishes in a net”, harking back to the first novel, perhaps (p. 167). Jack has a bronze dancing shiva and isn’t that mentioned in “The Book and the Brotherhood” or is it just on the front of the paperback? The large grey stone on a plinth echoes the Lingam Stone in “The Good Apprentice”. We have another saintly father in Maisie Tether’s and I wonder if this is another nod to IM’s beloved father. A paragraph setting everyone in their place (p. 282) echoes a set of similar ones in “The Book and the Brotherhood”. Maisie is a lapsed Quaker, a nice link to “The Philosopher’s Pupil” where I think our last Quakers were.  Another link to “The Philosopher’s Pupil” comes when Marzilian says that something like this, connected to the Axle Stone, has happened before, “something less extreme” (p. 333). Part Six, made up almost entirely of letters, recalls epistolatory chapters in other books and reminds us of IM’s art again, each voice distinct and preserved in a letter. Almost at the end we have one of IM’s prosaic explanations for mysterious thoughts or phenomena (like the bent knees of the skiiers in whichever novel that was in) – the booming Ludens hears is military manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, Fanny tells him.

Feelings on re-reading this. I noticed and admired Franca a lot more. Once again, although their ages weren’t given, I feel I was the same age or older than the main characters. I hadn’t really noticed before that we see almost all of the action through Franca’s and Ludens’ eyes and experience their inner lives, without either being a first-person narrator, something the mature novelist IM is has the ability to carry off: I was impressed this time when we appeared to be in Ludens’ head on meeting Marzillian only for him to say with no warning that he might be Armenian. I really liked Daniel Most, the rabbi, too, someone I had hardly noticed before, although I’d remembered his name. Irina seems silly and the Stone People a bit facile, too. This has always reminded me of the last book in “A Dance to the Music of Time”, which features a guru, followers, stones and the 1980s, and it still does. Little details reminded me it is set in the 1980s – they discuss whether Patrick has Aids or “an obscure African virus” (which made me think of Bruce Chatwin and his obscure virus).

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.