Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Iris Murdoch creates a hero who is his own worst enemy, and that of a few others too.

After reading one Iris Murdoch, I had to read another. I found this one that I hadn’t read before, and I devoured it when I should have been doing other things.

A Word Child

In Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child, first published in 1975, Hilary Burde, an orphan who survived a brutal childhood to become an Oxford don and someone with a promising future, finds himself working for the Civil Service in a lowly position and looking back on all he has lost. At first we hear that something happened that made him leave Oxford, and before long we are wallowing in the hideous tale he has to tell.

Before we get there, though, we meet the people with whom he has filled his life. There is Christopher, his willowy and druggy young boarder, Tommy (or Thomasina) his erstwhile girlfriend, Clifford, a middle-aged homosexual who is in love with him, the Impiatts, Laura and Freddie, a senior colleague and his wife, Arthur, a junior colleague, and Hilary’s sister Crystal, an uneducated seamstress who lives in a single room and spends her days hoping to see her brother.

In typical Murdoch fashion, all these characters are rich and fascinating in their own way; but only when Gunnar and his wife Lady Kitty appear, as they do when Gunnar is to take over the Directorship of the office where Hilary works, do we get the full depth and desperation of the tale.

It seems that when they were both students at Oxford, where Hilary was a whiz in languages and linguistics, Gunnar, an older student and the first to win a fellowship to teach in the College, gave Hilary support in his attempts to move ahead in the college. As Hilary is being entertained by Gunnar and his wife, Anne, however, he finds that he is falling in love with the kind and supportive (and beautiful) young wife. The have an intense and very short-lived affair, and when he is trying to whisk her away, and she is begging to return to Gunnar, he smashes the car on the motorway, and she is killed.

To say that this has obsessed Hilary since it happened would be an understatement. It has completely destroyed his life—he resigned his fellowship and left Oxford immediately—but the way he sees it, it also destroyed his sister’s life. He had hoped to carry her along to higher things, and now he has just dragged her down into the dirt with him.

Now that Gunnar has arrived, what can he do. Is there any chance of forgiveness? Can someone who is not religious really repent? What does it mean to talk about the past, and does it continue to haunt you even after you have dredged it up to dissect it?

These are all questions that Murdoch addresses as she tells an amusing and tragic story about what happens to these people who are tangled up in love for one another. It is too shocking to say what happens to Hilary when he gets involved with Gunnar and Kitty, but suffice it to say that history almost repeats itself. But whether or not it does, Murdoch seems to insist, life still goes on and redemption can come where you least expect it. This is classic Murdoch.

Iris Murdoch

A World Child is available at Powell's and Amazon.

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