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Florence in Words

From Murdoch to Lessing

Those of you who have been looking for more on Murdoch may be disappointed that, though I’ve read two more novels (Henry and Cato; Nuns and Soldiers), and have only one more to go (The Word Child); and though I’ve found the essay I wrote in 1963 on The Unicorn (and really on the first six novels that preceded it), I’m moving to Doris Lessing in order to contribute to a Canadian book being put together to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of The Golden Notebook. So I am rereading relevant Lessing in October and will write the essay in November.

For those of you who would like to see the 1963 essay on The Unicorn, I’ll begin typing it here right now, and if it’s appealing, let me know, and I’ll go on with it.

Review of Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn (written by Florence Howe in 1963, at the request of William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, but never published, though paid for handsomely).

Visitors to New York’s Cloisters (among whom, Iris Murdoch in 1959) will remember the series of tapestries depicting “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” Seen in the chase, seen captured, seen being violently killed, the unicorn is relatively small—smaller than a horse, larger than a dog—white, graceful, beautiful. His extraordinary feature is a long, slender, but incredibly strong single golden horn that merges from the center of his forehead. He can be caught only by devious strategies, the most significant of which is the lure of the virgin. The unicorn cannot resist a virgin. Just as he is potentially powerful, wild even, capable of violence in his self- defense, so he is meek and mild, especially when captured. He is beauty, serene and terrible in aspect, infinitely potent in attraction. Active human figures surrounding the moving unicorn fill all the tapestries but one. In the most famous tapestry, one central to The Unicorn, the fabulous beast is alone, in repose, encircled by his cage.

Since 1954, Iris Murdoch has been writing novels about the singularly lonely state of man. He has to find his own way; on the whole no one can help him and on the whole he can help no one. He may chase an enchanter or he may try flight. But love, the most subtle of all enchanters, will provide no haven; rather, net or cage. Central to all her novels is the title of her first, Under the Net. The invisible powerful net Vulcan jealously contrived to entrap Venus and Mars provides an image and theme directly related to her seventh novel, The Unicorn. The magical beast’s solitary beauty, his dark power, the fable of his captivity, and the cage itself are elements present in Miss Murdoch’s fiction from the beginning.

From the beginning also she has been an unusually proficient story-teller who has concerned herself as well, in an old-fashioned sense that is rapidly becoming new—fashioned, with characterization. But when she writes that “The novel is properly an art of image rather than of analysis,” she provides a key to the special quality of her fiction; it grows more and more painterly and dramatic. Characters are memorable in scenes or in actions or in images that evoke their state. Her novels at best are tightly conceived metaphorical worlds in which all elements—plot, setting, character, theme—fall into a pattern that is difficult to disengage even for discussion. Miss Murdoch began as a comic novelist. Her typically grim modern themes have been lit not only with irony but with comedy and farce and even more with her essential expression of the “mysterious vitality” of life.

Readers of Under the Net will remember, for example, the Alsatian “Marvelous Mister Mars,” a canine movie star kidnapped by the hero and his alter-ego in a farcical series of scenes reminiscent of the best of Chaplin and the Marx brothers. Mars is not easy to kidnap, for he is living in a cage so elegantly contrived that Jake and Finn cannot discover its hidden lock and must therefore carry the ever-smiling dog, two slippery pork chops, and the cage through a London apartment building and into an open-hooded London cab, directed by a comical cabdriver. The scenes move forward in a fantasy of wreckage and fumbling toward the inevitable moment when, after a drive to a “disused timber yard,” and half an hour of bar-filing, the helpful cabdriver touches the magic place and springs open the until-then invisible door. The moment of freedom for Mars had come with the bar-filing: “I received the enormous warm sleek beast into my arms and then in a moment we were all tearing round and round the yard, dog barking and man shouting, as we celebrated his freedom.” (To be continued . . .)
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