The Italian Girl. Iris Murdoch. Chatto & Windus, 21s.

In the prospect of those who admired Under The Net and The Bell, this is the fourth of Iris Murdoch’s ‘bad’ novels, an annual series welcomed by progressively fewer intellectuals—especially Leftward ones—and by more public librarians needing to recommend a lurid good read. It is now easier to think of Iris Murdoch as a collaborator in a West End comedy than as the author of a monograph on Sartre. The critical embarrassment is to explain how, well within a decade, she has managed to be both, and to show how Jake Donoghue (‘The bottles of cognac which I always smuggle had been taken from me by the customs’) has turned into square, myopic bumbling Edmund Narraway (‘I had no craving for luxuries and never had had, but I did not honour poverty for its own sake, and disliked its indignities and inconveniences. I lived a solitary life’) self-confessor and narrator of The Italian Girl.

Without a meditated re-reading of the entire oeuvre, one can only make brief guesses, more or less wild . . . The steadily contracting sociological range of her novels goes along with, in part induces, a disastrous implausibility of the human relations shown (the people becoming ‘too fruity to be true’). Socially, the most fluid and mobile mise en scene, that of Under The Net, is also the most authentic. In The Sandcastle, the social and personal escape routes are mostly blocked, the possibilities fewer, the anomie—for readers and characters—intensified. With A Severed Head, we are at sclerosis point, the only movement is between Pelham Crescent and Cambridge. The world offered is the academic one, and from this book onwards both settings and main figures are usually involved in some highly English professional subsector—emblematic, in either miniature or caricature, of the don’s craft: anthropology, rose cultivation, local pseudo-history, wood-engraving. These and their practitioners, like the books’ topographical and architectural imprecisions, frequently seem like immensely efforted disguises and displacements of North Oxford, so that it is as if much of the writing power, the ingenuity, the moral concern were perversely given over to evading the one novel which by talent and experience Iris Murdoch should be spectacularly equipped to write—a treatment of our Senior Members that annihilated the myths of both Snow and Sayers. Unfortunately the special blight of these books indicates why that one is unlikely ever to get done, because however distanced from the academic archetype their milieux may be (e.g. a coyly undeclared Ireland in The Unicorn and now ‘the North country’) they are not, in the crucial sense, at all detached from it. In fact, these novels exhibit that fatal alliance of ‘realism’ (not truth) with cleverness (in place of seriousness) which is a specific of the successful Oxbridge mind. Ever since The Bell (how pointlessly well was one made to learn the lay-out of Imber), Iris Murdoch has been inclined to yoke together crushing verisimilitude—the solidity and trivia of the everyday world—with an increasingly crude and prolific apparatus of symbolism, thesis, pattern and mere trick. Attempting to wed fable and fiction, she is instead achieving a genre somewhere between Green Penguin and Old Gothic.

The Italian Girl does not take the process much further than its terrible predecessor, but neither does it recover any lost ground. There is still symmetry, intrigue and complication instead of form, plot and complexity. Sexual permutation is again offered as a lazy substitute for showing people actually in relation with one another, and there is so much and such varied violence that it serves as neither means or end. Above all—and maybe this is what really makes Jake Donoghue seem so remote—the book is remorselessly unengaging, lustreless, arid.

Kenneth Trodd