Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 5. 1969.
books — No Easy Way of Dying
No Easy Way of Dying
Iris Murdoch: Bruno's Dream, a novel. Published by Chatto and Windus, London. N.Z. Price $2.90.
Iris Murdoch's latest novel narrowly misses being called crazy and, indeed, if had been written by a less competent novelist it might have been dismissed out of hand. But Miss Murdoch has a particular brand of unpredictability and humour which saves her plot and characters from becoming too gruesome or mere caricatures of some particular warp of their personalities.
Bruno is lying in his bed, old, ugly, brave, pathetic, waiting to die. He has been preoccupied by the past, his loves, his mistakes and his need now for a forgotten forgiveness. His son Miles, civil servant, poet, is too clumsy to accept the old man's approaches and his own life has become chaotic with his loves of the past, present and Future. Bruno's son-in-law Danby, faithful in memory to his dead wife, enjoying the benefits of having Adelaide—the maid —as a mistress and then falling into a romantic love affair with Diana, Miles' wife and finally into a passionate love affair with Miles' sisterin-law Lisa.
It would be easier to present the characters' loves and affections in diagram form or as a philosophical equation.
But this would be to under-rate Miss Murdoch's intelligence as a novelist. Her characters in this as in her other novels display more complex feelings that out-lined here. Lisa, for example: child-woman, withdrawn, Oxford graduate, failed nun is living with her sister and brother-in-law and teaching in a slum school. Danby falls in love with her and pleads with her in a cemetery to meet with him. Miles sees him and stimulated by another man's interest in Lisa also falls in love with her amazed to find the feeling reciprocated. With heavy pathos the lovers both heed their love and duty towards Diana. So Lisa martyrishly brave, leaves to join an Indian Save-the-Children mission and we might well have expected the lovers' sacrifice to end on this unhappy note. But we would have reckon' d without Iris Murdoch's wicked wit and thorough knowledge of human behaviour. Lisa decides that perhaps she is the only one who is making a sacrifice, so she decides to cut her losses, stays in England and turns Danby's ardent protestations of love to her advantage.
Adelaide de Crecy, suffering from her name and station, and having lost Danby"s affection in a high-pressure duel, marries Will and discovers the joys of the marriage bed. Diana, too, makes out as best she can with holding Bruno's hand thus giving herself some purpose in life and listening to the old man's lingering confessions.
Bruno's dream is the nightmarish one of old age and fear of death. Fear of not being able to get down stairs, fear of yielding to Nigel-the-Nurses' suggestion to use bed-pans. He still relies on his knowledge and interest in spiders to make up for his deficiencies in human relationships. He lets his inherited collection of valuable stamps fall through his fingers like jewels and uses their value to play the heirs off against one another believing the expected inheritance to wheedle more influence than any genuine affection for him. He has made the spiders and stamps substitutes for his own suspected inability to give and receive affection. He is afraid to love yet terrified of dying alone, to be forgotten and unforgiven.
Iris Murdoch manipulates her strange bunch of characters with fluency and humour. No peaceful solutions here, no compromises to make characters fit "nicely" together. If, occasionally, the reader feels that the characters are merely pawns in a greater intellectual checkerboard it is because Miss Murdoch finds their movements more interesting than their reasons for making them. So often a character never explains his 'reasons' and Iris Murdoch relies on impulsive unknown human reactions to be enough explanation.
As evident in her previous books' for example The Unicorn, Miss Murdoch is concerned with setting her characters in a situation and giving them a choice. The results are often disastrous and a brilliant attack on rational ethics. The characters fight to survive and if they make human blunders it should make them all the more believable. But we have been conditioned into expecting heroic, rational or justified reactions from our protagonists and this unexpected "normal" behaviour takes us unawares.
Miss Murdoch writes for a specialist clientele of informed, critical, slightly cynical minds and her detachment from her characters' deep feelings often seems to give her books a superficial polish. Personal involvement is a quality I regret Miss Murdoch does not have but as a social critic and commentator her method of dissection is most surely and ably used.