All life is fiction but it fails to get recorded as fiction. Reading high literature is the cleanest, neatest form of learning about life that there is. Last Christmas I determined to re-read the whole of Iris Murdoch – all 26 novels. I’ve got to number 8…
The Italian Girl
In The Unofficial Rose, Mildred gets her man, and in The Unicorn, Marian comes out of her trance into a different world, but much loving in Iris Murdoch’s novels seems misplaced, doomed. The wonderful ending of The Italian Girl is different – it has the constantly bemused Edmund in a wordless loving communion with Maria. Without words everything is so simple.
According to Peter Conradi in his brilliant monumental Iris Murdoch: A Life, The Italian Girl was not received well by some:-
In 1963 Marshall Best [her American editor] was dissatisfied with [it] and warned Iris that she might this time annoy her readership: ‘I think you come near to justifying the charge sometimes made against you… that you are playing games with your readers, deliberately holding back your meanings until they wonder if they are really there.’ The character of Maggie baffled him at the end. [Says more about him than IM…] Norah Smallwood [of Chatto & Windus] agreed, and was very interested to see how Iris would react, writing to Best: ‘between you and me, in our experience we have in the past made suggestions, and while she has received them very charmingly, she has seldom… taken them into account.’ Iris agreed that the book was flawed, and Maggie was weak, but did not now want to go back, to it. ‘Much as I love and admire her,’ Best wrote to Smallwood, ‘I hate this lack of professionalism and this unwillingness to take herself seriously as a novelist. She does say, and apparently means it, that she wouldn’t mind a bit if we skipped this book and waited for another.’ Smallwood agreed that it was odd that someone as good as Iris ‘is not interested in making good better. Can it be that she is so bursting with ideas that there is little time to do all that she wants?’ Smallwood accordingly wrote to Iris lamenting that, while she liked and admired the book, I’d like it even better if you gave that final re-touching’. Anthony Burgess, who would later name The Bell as one of the best novels of its epoch, thought The Italian Girl showed that Iris’s reputation was grossly inflated.
Well, there we go. ‘Lack of professionalism’? I’m so glad that IM seemed to stubbornly ignore all this. Best & Smallwood & Burgess miss the point of the novel completely. Play on, I would have said. For me, Maggie dominates the book by her absence. It’s a Sartrean idea that absence is a powerful presence. As Maggie tells Edmund, she knows everything that’s going on in the house; since we like to think that we do that’s all that matters. It’s almost as though it’s she who tells the story; she knows all there is to know; she is powerful. Her silence, lacking the curse of ‘Internal Considering’, keeping her self to herself, looking after everything, makes Edmund’s capitulation to her all the more impressive: she plays out what Isabel seems to think – that words are an encumbrance.
If IM had taken Best & Smallwood’s advice we’d not have such a compelling book; paradoxically, Maggie would have been reduced in presence by having more words to speak, by being explained away. We know all we need to know about her. The novel is flawless.
To write this essay I’ve seen fit to adopt a title of the sort I might, thirty years ago, have set my A Level Literature students to choose:-
Write a Letter from Isabel to Edmund, Giving Her Take on Events
I’ve got to get this out of my system to release me from the machinery finally. Here I am in Scotland, free. This all affects me in a great mix of ways that it’s more or less impossible to square up. I’m writing in great haste, word after word after word without thinking about it too much so as to get it all out on the basis that you need to see what you write before you can possibly know what you think. I wonder if you’ll ever get this letter now you’ve gone off with that odd Italian woman – that so-called ‘girl’. Does it matter what I think? She had a thing with Lydia you know, so I suppose your flight of fancy – so unlike you with your prudishness & abstinence from all the things that make life worthwhile, your satisfaction with solitariness – is a kind of final bizarre reconciliation with that dreadful woman – or maybe you were just after your mother’s money via the Italian woman. You did come to bury Lydia who should have been a reason for your not coming – her non-existence an even stronger reason – but you wanted to get the hell out of it as quickly as possible, to abandon our mess to get back to the studied simplicity of your asceticism, your simple unencumbered life. What stopped you? Was it the sudden apprehension of childhood, the memory of how things used to be? Our creatrix beguiled you into remaining, I suppose:-
These were the old June smells, the wet midsummer night smells, the sound of the river and the distant waterfall. An owl hooted, slowly, deliberately, casting out one inside the other his expanding rings of sound.
I thought at the time – that’s how our story works: we were wrapped around by rings of confusion, the machinery grinding away; something like this:-I thought you’d help us, heal us, doctor, assessor, judge – I wasn’t quite sure how it would work out. But you didn’t know what to do – you were just working your way out of it all. I very early on lost the battle for Otto – I realised it was pointless to put up any kind of fight with Lydia; she’d got you both in her grip. And so I retired to my room fortified against the rest of the house which was ‘…still appointed in the narrowly fanciful style favoured by [your] father, a sort of Spartan art nouveau…’ I had built myself a luscious eclectic boudoir, crammed with furniture encrusted with objects, a myriad trinkets that tinkled like little bells when disturbed. An Edwardian room dreaming of the eighteenth century. On the mantelpiece, ivory water-buffaloes you nearly knocked over in your huge clumsiness. This was my haven and my prison, both – I felt caged & bored; oh how I wanted ‘emotion & pistol shots’, while you were just concerned about prancing around in Otto’s workshop for fear of stirring up the dust on the floor and upsetting your sensitive nose. You were just living your father’s life for him, that timid man with his unworldly tastes; Otto was his image, the gluttonous buffoon. I know he felt he could have been a good man if he hadn’t married. He thought women were the source of all evil, dreamers. Sin was a sort of unconsciousness, a not-knowing. He thought his life was a mess but he didn’t blame me. He couldn’t even feel any proper regret about it because he too felt caught in the machine. Evil is a sort of machinery, so he thought. And he couldn’t even suffer properly because he enjoyed his own suffering. He wanted to give up drink, to look with absolute blankness and truthfulness at what he was, even if he went on doing the same things. But the prison… We have to get rid of all these words; blankness & nothingness is what we should go to. Your father had this same idea but you were led by Lydia down a labyrinth to a ‘metaphysical torture chamber’; if you’d listened to him you’d know that work is the one simplicity which can’t be taken away from us. In making works of art, he said, words become superfluous. Life as a silent work or art… You saw Flora as this innocent being; Flora in her sunhat represented Innocence for you: ‘some little ageless nymph of the woods, some gracious sprite from an Italian painting, too smooth, too slim, too luminous to be really made of flesh…’ How wrong you were! In his more sober moments, Otto used to talk about innocence – to be good, he thought, was just a matter of not losing it; he wondered how he lost it, when the evil began. Innocence, like evil, is a meaningless abstraction; we have to prevent things from being wrapped in all these words. I found these little sketches on bits of scrap paper after your dash for whatever it might be now… This is, I assume, how you remember me now at the moment I tried so hard to tempt you into adopting the role of my baby’s father – you had other ideas, of course – you assessed things all right. In one of our meagre conversations, Otto told me how you wanted to catch the 5 o’clock train after the funeral, only interested in what you might have got from the will which, of course, we couldn’t find at the time. We knew you were hard up. Engraving is not a lucrative trade and I can quite understand why. I hated those engravings of yours, black cramped things capturing the world with a nasty precision, making everything tiny like looking through the wrong end of binoculars; we were all prisoners like people in an engraving – I stopped Otto from doing them – imprisoned in our minds, destroying one another to please Lydia, specialised destroyers, monkey men & spider women. I thought you were different. Maybe you were. Flora, Elsa – that business with the dancing worms on the early morning lawn – Maria – your dubious enchantments – I could see the intellectual appreciation of Woman. Actually, come to think of it, our creatrix always seemed obsessed by dubious enchantments. She was also taken with exact enchantments, rather nice trances, I muse – I found these notes of yours:-
The birches and conifers had receded here toward the top of the hill and their place was taken by the bamboos which fringed the water and the shrubby tangle of the camellias which clothed the slopes. The bamboos had invaded the stream now, their straight strong stems grouped in the water itself, while the stream, more choked than ever with its debris of round grey stones, meandered a blackish brown under the sun-tinged arches. The waterfall distantly murmured. A riot of wild flowers and grasses had covered the bank and made the path invisible and all but impassable. The jumble of campion and ragged robin gave place to briars and ground elder as Flora still pushed on ahead of me with determination in the green half-light. The extreme beauty of the scene put me into an instant trance. It was always a trick of my nature to be subject to these sudden enchantments of the visible world, when a particular scene would become so radiant with form and reality as to snatch me out of myself and make me oblivious of all my purposes. Beauty is such self-forgetting.
Or maybe, rather, a trance of self-remembering. Self-forgetting is what happens when we are asleep, being machines in the Gurdjieff sense. I should like to have discussed this with you: here you are, being entirely present to yourself, being snatched from the menace of sleep. Then you forget your self caught by my suggestion that you could sort us all out to become a prisoner of the situation, part of the machinery. Are we not all prisoners? After Lydia, who certainly had you in her prison, you had to keep women in some special place (or prison?) in your mind where they wouldn’t spill over into sex. So I thought, why not me? Why don’t I make some sort of bid for you? Open your eyes to other possibilities. Otto was up there in the summer house having his bloated fun with the poor refugee. I knew he’d sent you to me, not to help me adjust, as he said, but to take me off his hands, make him feel comfortable, get me out of the way, have it off with you in a back-handed act of Brotherly Love. So I did the only thing I could think of – no use trying to beguile you with words. We all get lost in words – they’re a significant part of the machinery which you found yourself caught up in. You came to my room, my special place as the creatrix describes it; my detachment, my prison. Could I set something up between you & me? Lydia destroyed anything there might have been between Otto & me; Flora was just incidental. I knew about him & Elsa – they made such a racket together. You stared at your boots unable to get your head round the fact that Otto attacked me once with a chisel – your simple life never included such things but you do think of married people as being akin to obscene animals; I wonder how you’ll get on with that Italian woman now. I thought the sight of my breasts would compel you to me. It has worked before. She even interrupted that. You & Otto can get off with your blocks of stone and your pregnant pieces of boxwood – as for flesh & blood – well, you just wanted to scarper and I’m not really sure that Otto could cope. But you were beginning to relish your feeling of responsibility to Flora and didn’t want to feel superfluous, began to enjoy your role as assessor & judge in order to escape your own feeling of loneliness. You saw me as a sort of ‘sexual queen’ – I know my obscure little frenzied waves of sexual need and would-be authority had you disturbed – maybe even set you up for the Italian slut. When Flora announced that she’d ‘had it out’ – that parallel thing I had with Levkin, that ‘pinpoint of being’ – you were devastated, felt you’d killed the unborn by missing breakfast and failing to put the moral case to Flora. You & your bourgeois morality, huh! You were so hurt when Flora said she had no further use for you – you so wanted to be useful in a detached sort of way – that’s what kept you here; kept you from what she rightly called your ‘crippled life’, telling you to ‘leave real living to people who are able for it. It wasn’t just Maggie who could hear everything that went on in this house. Rage raises ranting to high decibels. When I told you I loved David Levkin you were paralysed with shock; you looked as though there was a bad smell in the room. When he came here it was a vision of a new life, ‘like seeing an angel’. Otto with the sister & me with the brother – how neat! I laughed at your expression of horror. And I asked you to marry me… When you kissed me I felt… well, I felt. Your relationship with Lydia dished you for womenkind, otherwise… It’s just as your woman Maggie told you – Lydia set us all at odds with one another. ‘Old goat!’ ‘Rhino!’ shouted Flora – I heard her tell you that Maggie didn’t attract men; I suppose that’s what inspired you to be attracted. Flora made her more attractive when she chopped her hair off with those scissors. Flora tried to set things straight with Otto. I heard the cries and the shouting – they filled the house. And then Otto biffed you. I laughed and laughed. Spells. We were all under a spell. Maybe Otto’s punch broke your spell. I wonder. It was such a hoot Lydia leaving all her loot to Maggie – you saw your chance. Lydia was so good at making everybody her personal property. What a hoot when you & Otto stood up for the arrival of sacred womanhood at the ‘reading’ of the Will. And then in what our creatrix called ‘the Enchanted Wood’ you found yourself utterly unnecessary to Flora and rather more than necessary to the Italian woman who tricked you into carrying her through the so-called enchanted wood so her bare feet would not be lacerated by brambles. Lost her shoes indeed! While all that was happening, Elsa died whirling like a dervish wrapped in flame. My room destroyed. My haven a conflagration. Otto says things will never be the same again. Don’t I know it! The blazing room, the melted flesh. Too much all of a sudden. Mortality and all the chance consequences of action, the real nature of things. I think in the end David just felt himself to be a clown, which he was in a way, always leaping about like he was in the circus ring. I admired him for that – it made him real. Now the Italian woman says we can keep the house. Big of her. We are all made simple all of a sudden. Otto content, conceptually whittled away like a Giacometti figurine – he could never be physically whittled away, the great lump of a man. Maybe Flora will look after him well. You’ll remember there was a cat out in the yard, just like at the end of our creatrix’ other novel An Unofficial Rose, before now I would not have noticed it – might have seen it but not experienced it, taken it into myself, There’s that bit in The Ancient Mariner – the water snakes – ‘Oh, happy living things, no tongue their beauty might declare…’ Suddenly to see a very cat, to see the world as it really is – to be let out of oneself. I’ve never felt less like a machine. I got you to sit down before I told you I was pregnant – didn’t want you to faint or anything. At last I have a future. Pity you couldn’t share it. Simone Weil told me that Gurdjieff talked about the Food of Pure impressions being the highest form of food – without it you die. I was dying then there was that cat… I’m in Scotland now with my father, looking forward to another ‘David’, so rare a gift, and I dare say you’ll be on your way to Italy for who knows what. We all died for a moment but now we’ve all changed into ourselves for a certainty. No, you had no power to heal us, no right to judge us, quite hopeless at assessment. We had to heal ourselves just as we must suffer for ourselves and we will get on very well without words now. At least I got all the emotion & pistol shots I could handle.
“May I drive you to Rome in my car?” said Edmund to Maria, trembling as he said it. Her answer was a nod, a sigh. She put her finger to her lips…