I am not sure why Iris Murdoch popped up somewhere on a list of books to read; but having always enjoyed her novels when they were published, my immediate response was “why not?” Now that I have read this one, I will probably read a few more. I like her perspective and some of the things she does with her characters, especially her reliance on Platonic philosophy.
In Bruno’s Dream, first published in 1969 and now available in Kindle and other e-book versions, Iris Murdoch writes a wonderful tale that highlights themes that return again and again in her fiction.
Bruno, who is suffering an incurable disease that is easing him toward death, sits in an upper chamber and contemplates the unfairness of his life. He feels that he acted badly to his wife, whom he hurt by having an affair, and to his son, whom he hurt by not accepting the son’s choice of a South Asian wife.
Thinking himself almost inhuman in his cruelties, Bruno also feels that there may be one last chance to be understood. Hope rests on his son Miles, to whom he has not spoken in decades, and for whom he still has residual resentments. While he tries to get those around him to arrange this meeting, he flutters with uncertainty about whether he wants to meet Miles, or not.
Bruno is in the hands of Danby, the former husband of Bruno’s daughter Dawn and director of the printing business that Bruno has left to his charge. Danby was kind enough to offer Bruno a place to stay during his illness, and although he is a bit of a drunk and foolish in lots to ways, he does seem to be a kind man.
Also in the house are Adelaide, a housekeeper who has been carrying on an affair with Danby for some time, and Nigel, the nurse who comes to spend time with Bruno in the evenings.
Miles, a civil servant and struggling poet, is married to Diana, who is as positive and open as he is negative and closed. With them lives Diana’s sister Lisa, who has been in and out of religious institutions and is making her way as a teacher.
One last character to mention is Will, who is Nigel’s twin and the cousin, as Nigel is too, of Adelaide. They have a complicated relationship from childhood, and to the degree that Nigel is otherworldly and mystical, Will is physical and aggressive. He has nursed an affection for Adelaide since childhood, and although she is attached to him too, she doesn’t feel that he is reliable. Of course she hasn’t told him anything about Danby.
As the meeting between Bruno and Miles begins to happen, all the other characters are thrown into turmoils of various kinds, mostly emotional. Danby begins a romantic friendship with Diana, whom he meets when he has gone to discuss Miles’s meeting with Bruno. This has no sooner started than he falls madly in love with Lisa, who reminds him of his lost wife, Dawn.
When Miles sees Lisa and Danby chatting in a park—she is actually trying to put him off—he realizes that he has always really loved her rather than his wife. And so the confusions abound.
Although it sounds rushed and crazy when summarized, Murdoch makes it seem not only sensible, but inevitable. Luckily, Nigel is there to flutter and help in various ways before confessing his own unrequited love, and some characters are ready to forgive and others to reimagine the future, and it all works out in the end.
Murdoch had been writing novels for fifteen years when she published this one. I think it shows her at the height of her powers.
Bruno's Dream is available at Powell's and Amazon.