26 APRIL 1975, Page 26


On top of the word

Peter Ackroyd

A Word Child Iris Murdoch (Chatto and Windus £3.00) I am not sure if the title of Iris Murdoch's latest annual is meant to describe the narrative, its hero, or its author. All three of them can be sentimental and can seem factitious, in the manner of those orphans who curl up like commas at the foot of language. Wordiness is certainly the word. The book has almost four hundred pages; the same scenes are often discussed several times in completely different conversations; there are a great many neologisms and archaicisms, and there are even specimens of a more disputatious and elaborate prose than that which is currently taken to be 'realistic':

'You speak of truth. Well, this is a matter of science, and science is truth isn't it. There are no miracles, no redemptions, no moments of healing, no transfiguring changes in one's relation to the past. There is nothing but accepting the beastliness and defending oneself.'

The bravura here might have come flying out of Rosmersho/m or John Gabriel Borkman, and A Word Child is certainly invaded by the kind of symbolic intent which is characteristic of melodrama at its best. The public address system from the extract is Mr Hilary Burde, the hero, a marked child and now a man acquainted with grief, a man broken by sin and guilt: in fact, in realistic terms, a thoroughly nasty and quite implausible character. But Miss Murdoch takes only a fitful interest in what passes nowadays as realism, since the word children have more precise forms of expression.

Hilary Burde has committed the grandest sin of all; he has destroyed the person he thought he loved, although in plain truth his first love is still the written language, in all its self-sufficiency: "Looking up words in the dictionary was for me an image of goodness. The endless endless task of learning new words was for me an image of life." But as lonesco used to say, "Arithmetic leads to Philology, and Philology leads to Crime." The new word for Burde's life is 'victim', and like all sacrifices he runs toward his fate. But romantics will never willingly suffer alone, and Hilary manages to maim or destroy the lives of everyone in the book. There is his sister, Crystal, a luckless creature who has been so beaten by life that she can only 'make the best' of it; there is Clifford, the homosexual civil servant whose coolness hides coldness, and whose flippancy camouflages the absolute loss of love; there are Gunnar and Kitty, who have lived by the watering hole of Hilary's first crime and are now close to being destroyed by its sequel; and there is Arthur, who loves Crystal with the helplessness of those who have no sense of their own worth.

All of these characters exist in the purgatory which Iris Murdoch has created out of the works and days of contemporary London. This is the city dominated by its subterranean passages (there is so much talk of the "Inner Circle" — actually known as the Circle — that some solemn reviewer must at this moment be calling the book Dantesque), and by a cold, nersistent and yellow fog. The fact that there has been no fog of any kind in London for some years is not to the point, since Miss Murdoch is reaching for what is presumably the higher authenticity of fable. A Word Child is, in important respects, something of an

anachronism. The solitary fate of the hero carrying a burden of sin and guilt, and the weight of a past that cannot be exorcised, is by no means a recent invention; and there are so many ancient passions and rhetorical gestures — not to mention coincidences, improbabilities and complexities — that it is as if Miss Murdoch were trying to encompass within the unbearably temporary form of the prose novel a gaggle of classical riddles and mythical creatures.

There are certain disadvantages to this approach. As I have mentioned before (since Miss Murdoch is always mentioning things before, I can be allowed to do it once myself), there is a certain amount of what looks like padding: characters will discuss the same events on various occasions, without noticeably adding to the sum of human knowledge, and small incidents will often liberate endless and self-indulgent monologues. When Hilary Burde, for example, finds that his office desk has been moved he launches into a recitative which finally ends: "Misery and sin are inextricably mixed in the human lot. I experienced the inextricability." Of course a part of this longueur springs from Hilary's inability to see his "lot" in anything other than gaudily poetic terms, but Miss Murdoch has her own lapses. She enjoys melodrama — a number of deaths and unlikely sexual liaisons pop up as if by magic — and she enjoys fabrication — I do not believe that anyone, not even Hilary Burde, says "Pshaw!" in the middle of a perfectly ordinary conversation. And it was unwise of Miss Murdoch to stoop to one particular device which never fails to irritate me: Hilary mentions casually at one point "I felt as if I were someone in a story." The point of Iris Murdoch's fictions is that they are self-consciously and deliberately fictional, and it injures their status to present them rhetorically as fact.

But, despite all of this, it is very difficult for her to write badly or falsely. I prefer a host of her uncertainties to the poor certainty of an ordinary realist. She uses the language with a fluency and a control that never fail to give pleasure, however hard she may try to worry or defeat us. And within the elaborate and somewhat operatic structure of A Word Child, there are those flashes of social humour and exact description which match the best of contemporary writing. The vacuous and chirpy gossip of Hilary's office, for example, sounds right to me:

'Oh good it's one of Hilary's soft soap days' 'No flying ink pots today' 'Hilary, Hilaree, did Freddikins tell you about the panto?'

And those peripheral characters, like Arthur and Crystal, are charged with a life which survives all of the melodramatic props. These are the poor and apparently hopeless characters who can claim love or recognition only so far as they manage to reflect other people's feelings, and Miss Murdoch has resurrected that small and grubby world of bed-sits, tinned food, cheap wine, with all of its inhabitants living on the fringes of our great technological society. This is the picture which I remember from the novel, and it is one which will survive when the great mythical machine of crime and punishment has rusted away to dust.

Peter Achroyd is the literary editor of The Spectator.