Last week, for the first time, I was in the middle of three Iris Murdoch novels at once: The Red and the Green (1965), The Good Apprentice (1975) and Jackson’s Dilemma (1985). I didn’t plan the dates—all was “accidental” (the quotation marks in honor of Iris). Because I was to make two separate train trips to Washington, D.C. within two weeks, I selected two paperbacks I could carry—the ones twenty years apart. And once again I seem to need a useless paragraph to get to the heart of what I want to say about Iris.
I don’t want to write about The Red and the Green because it is perfect Iris: characters you want to love and those you want to shake because they are either wimps or too good for their own or anyone else’s good. This, I believe, is her only historical novel, and if you know the history of the Irish Easter Sunday/Monday rebellion, you my find this back stage view wonderful if improbable. I was delighted to see the way in which she worked out the fates of a very small band of people who were clearly not in historical view.
But I was especially eager to read Jackson’s Dilemma because I knew that it was her last novel before she became ill with Alzheimer’s. So my question became: Is this final novel different from all the rest? Can one see clues in it of her decline into an illness of the brain? No, because it is as well-plotted and as filled with a variety of the usual/unusual variety of characters. One can say that it’s just like the others. Indeed, one can find bits and pieces of the others in this novel: the long walks through London, for example, may remind you of her first novel. There is a precocious child. While there are no dogs, there are characters’ loving relations with two horses, a pony and, more movingly, a very old horse.
Yet, the novel seems different to me in two ways: It is shorter and it is almost breathless in its switches from character or groups of characters, sometimes back-tracking, as though in haste. I felt the haste as I read it. Second, the main character is not introduced at once, and he is seemingly a servant who presents himself to a character named Benet, who turns him away several times before he is employed. Who is he? What are his origins? What, even, is his full name? We are never told, and, indeed, we don’t care. He is fascinatingly magical and that’s enough.
More to the point: I’m sure that if one went through the novel again--I have read it only once—one would find more similarities despite the differences I have pointed to. I have the sense—and perhaps this is a sentimental view—that the magician in Iris knows that this is the end of her novel-writing, that she has been our servant, manipulating characters along the streets of her novels, causing them to meet or miss each other and to live or die at least on these pages. I think—and this may be crazy—that Jackson is Iris, not in the usual way that authors place themselves inside one of their characters. I mean something more improbable.
I am leaping off the page to consider that Iris had super sight, that she knew—somewhere in her mind/body—that this was to be her last book, that Jackson was her last great invention. Here’s how she leaves him—in the last lines of the book:
My powers have left me, will they return—have I simply misunderstood? At least I had called Benet to the bridge. Is it all a dream, yes, perhaps a dream—yet my strength remains, and I can destroy myself at any moment. Death, its closeness. Do I after all fear those who seek me? I have forgotten them and no one calls. Was I in prison once? I cannot remember. At the end of what is necessary, I have come to a place where there is no road.
As, casting off all this, he began to rise, he felt something strange. The spider had discovered his hand and was now walking upon it. Gently he assisted the creature back into its web. He walked down towards the river and crossed the bridge. As he came nearer now to Penndean he began to smile.
A postscript that will send me to the library tomorrow. After I had written this blog, I looked in the index of the one book I own on Iris, a biography by Peter J. Conradi called Iris. He makes only one statement about the novel, calling it “confused.” I am going to look at his literary book on her novels. I don’t think the novel is at all confused.