Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Dame Of The Sacred And Profane

Hot on the heels of a grad school rejection (Indiana), I finished my second Iris Murdoch novel, The Bell, a captivating tale of wayward and extraordinarily flawed spiritual searchers who are camped out in front of an enclosed order of nuns deep in the mist-drenched English countryside. The encamped members constitute a "lay community" of Christians who can neither "live in the world or out of it" so have chosen this monastic halfway house as their place of semi-controlled living. Three guests are also snared somewhat ambiguously in their ranks: an embattled married couple united by fear and resentment and a fresh-faced youth who is about to have all of his illusions crushed by the complex blossoming of sexual desire.

On one hand, their group faces the nearby village and on the other they are pressed against the seemingly impenetrable walls of the enclosed nun's abbey. Their little experimental community, more like a disorganized cult almost, is directly at the crossroads of the sacred and the profane. All of this becomes a warped microcosm where every one's spiritual hungers are interrupted, second-guessed and thoroughly compromised by love, lust, madness and personal resentments. Murdoch is incredibly agile in creating characters who are so believably muddled in their convictions and whose thoughts, lavishly brought to life on the page, are forever at odds with their perplexing and increasingly more alarming actions. Lastly, and most damningly, she diagnoses what the jailhouse of a bad marriage is actually like, with all its tug-of-wars, ultimatums and acts of emotional terrorism.

In fact, she managed in this novel to create a male character who is so disgustingly unlikable as a husband (and a human being) that I was actually cursing him out as I read the novel. At the same time, his tormented and confused wife inspired equal amounts of angry frustration if only because you know she should leave him but that she has hardly anything to leave him for. And Murdoch reveals just how her other options, at least in the form of human partners appear to be as damning as what she is already imprisoned with.

Cutting like a pagan current through all these mixed-up lives is the intriguing subplot of the lost abbey bell that is allegedly buried at the bottom of the lake that separates the Abbey from the Community. The bell, according to legend, landed there through some curse that was placed ages ago on a nun who was having an affair with a man. This subplot is evoked masterfully through Murdoch's vivid use of what, for lack of a real term, I'll call "gothic pastoral" where on moonlit nights mysterious, yet well-intentioned figures are prowling around the base of the Abbey walls, where a guilt-stricken man accidentally stumbles upon a naked youth taking a swim, where people wake in the middle of the night to the ominous booming of a phantasmal bell and where an unlikely pair collaborate in darkness to bring the ancient legend back to life.

This novel, like the first Murdoch I read, the Booker-prize winning The Sea, The Sea, is so brimming over with amazing characters, complex ideas, lush and evocative language, and page-turning action that I can't think, really, of more I can ask for from a novel. The amazing and confounding thing is that Dame Iris wrote 26 novels, more or less dealing with themes of the Sacred and the Profane AND was a professor of philosophy too.

So I've kind of taken her as a working model, someone to look up to, to learn more about and to read more of. I haven't been this driven to read some one's biography in a long time. With the exception of Graham Greene but his is three volumes long.

Meanwhile, I just started what will be a long and luxurious first-reading of a certain novel called The Brothers Karamozov.

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