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Sarah Perry: How Iris Murdoch taught me to love the Gothic

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I f Imber's geography is dreamlike, Murdoch's treatment of her characters pays minute attention to psychological and social realism. The effect of this acute attention amid the strangeness and symbols of Imber a butterfly trapped and released; blackbirds incessantly singing; the "hideous purity and austerity" of the nuns' plainsong is startling.

Dora and Paul are introduced with the keen eye of a satirist: there is something very funny about Paul's having "first met Dora when he came to lecture on medieval woodcarving at the Slade", and his having later installed his young wife in his "Knightsbridge flat, in the midst of [his] unique collection of medieval ivories. James Tayper Pace, with his resemblance to a film star, is of a type instantly recognised: an educated but essentially unintelligent Englishman, whose homophobia is all the more contemptible because it is not conscious, but rather a question of custom and practice, like passing the port to the left.

Murdoch's treatment of queerness here is characteristically subtle and sympathetic, in a novel published a year after the decriminalisation of homosexual activity between men. Toby Gashe, the boy whose ardour seems sometimes guileless, and sometimes full of guile, is an astonishing creation: we witness his coming into being, his consciousness developing and refining itself against those around him, often to their cost.

Occasionally one flinches against the authority of her observations. Memories occur like blows: "Michael's mind reproduced with a vividness amounting to violence the image of the pale body of the boy naked beside the pool. It is a dangerous book, as the Gothic has always been: touch him, we think, go on, watching Michael Meade do noble battle against desire in the seat of his car and willing him to lose.

Transgression seems a virtue: our sympathies are with the devil. Faith, for Murdoch, is not a matter to be treated either lightly or with particular care: it is merely an element in the whole metaphysical problem of how to be. For the residents at Imber, "things hoped for" are rarely, if ever, the promises of a conventional theology.

Michael Meade in particular is a remarkable study in the painful demands faith places on the faithful: of how it requires a series of arduous acts of self-inquiry and self-abnegation in the pursuit of an ideal. That ideal is not a Christ figure, but a kind of conflation of goodness and love. Occasionally in the novel Love is capitalised, elevated by Murdoch to the status of an object which may not be quite divine, but which is certainly beyond the full comprehension of the faithful, shaped by their longing, and always just outside their reach.

Michael, enduring over and over again what he has come to feel is an irreconcilable battle between body and spirit, at last "saw himself with a more rational and a more quiet eye: confident of a love which lay deeper than the contortions of his egoistic and unenlightened guilt".

T his phrase alone — the idea that guilt may be not a proper and inevitable response to an act of transgression, but a matter of ego and unenlightenment — is astonishing, certainly to any reader tutored in the conventional theologies; even, in fact, by the lights of the hardly less constricting moralities of a secular 21st century.

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Unwise intimacies are deliberately cultivated, marriages compromised, kisses exchanged across boundaries of power and trust. But Murdoch has a habit of making us all look bourgeois.

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Great love, she contends, must always contain "some grain of good. A ll literature is subject to fashion, and for a time Murdoch seemed to occupy a vanished trend; to belong in an Ercol sideboard alongside Dora's "big multicoloured skirts and jazz records and sandals". The Series Editors of Vintage Living Texts have, between them, more than thirty years teaching experience at senior school and undergraduate level. Their association with Vintage - and with the Vintage authors - guarantees a series that is lively and informative and fun.

Our Lists. Iris Murdoch. Margaret Reynolds , Jonathan Noakes. View all online retailers Find local retailers. Includes in-depth interview In Vintage Living Texts, teachers, students and any lover of literature will find the essential guide to the major works of Iris Murdoch. Read more. Jonathan Noakes The Series Editors of Vintage Living Texts have, between them, more than thirty years teaching experience at senior school and undergraduate level. Related titles. The Communist Manifesto: Popular Penguins. The Invention of Angela Carter.

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