An Accidental Man

Iris Murdoch is by now an old, reliable friend. I know I can always go to her when I crave a really good story, and so far she has never let me down.

She exudes a pure delight in inventing characters and in storyteling. She also has an excellent narrative style. She writes in the third person, but as you read you might suddenly realise that the third person narrator has, without your really noticing it, abruptly (but subtly!) taken on the point of view of one of the characters.

Now this technique is by no means new. It is very common. So common that we don’t, I think, really notice it anymore. A prof I once had called it “free indirect discourse.” I personally think Jane Austen is a master of it, and her third person but character-specific narrative voice is what creates that hilarious and sometimes almost cruel irony. In Iris Murdoch, that voice is the way we become enthralled with characters that I think we otherwise wouldn’t care about.

If you’re wondering what I mean, here is an example: In this scene, an old woman is dying and her children are gathered round her bed. A car pulls into the driveway. Charlotte goes to the front door and discovers that “it was the man next door asking if anyone visiting the house had left their car blocking his garage. Charlotte said no. … She looked out over his head at the beautiful, perky, ordinary, selfish, material world of motor-cars and evening appointments as she closed the door” (36-7). The implied and missing phrase in this passage is “what appeared to Charlotte as the beautiful, perky…” As we read, we agree, with Charlotte, that the “material world of motor-cars and evening appointments” is indeed “ordinary” and “selfish.” And – bam! – we understand and even care about Charlotte for this poetic insight she has.

But you need not be aware of all this while you are reading. It might be better if you aren’t. I simply want to demonstrate how good of a writer Iris Murdoch is. She’s basically a darker, more spiritually-charged version of Virigina Woolf, but with an actual plot (forgive me, Virginia Woolf). So, go, read An Accidental Man, read The Bell, pick up anything with her name on it – and there’s lots to choose from; she’s prolific – I don’t think you will be disappointed.