The Flight from the Enchanter – review
January 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
I finished Iris Murdoch’s second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter. I liked it significantly less than Under the Net, The Sandcastle, The Message to the Planet, and A Fairly Honorable Defeat.
But I won’t give up. I will just take a break, and then move on to The Black Prince or The Green Knight, depending on which is more readily available.
Full spoilers ahead!
Rule #1: I don’t think you should read Iris Murdoch’s books in too hasty a succession. You can’t just devour her entire universe at once; you will simply get confused, muddled, if you will. Also, the good Murdoch will make you hate the sub-par Murdoch, because it will linger and remind you that she could have been writing something amazing.
The Flight from the Enchanter starts out amazing. I was sure I would love it. It’s about a petulant little princess, Annette, who is full of contempt for institutions of higher education, and who decides she’d prefer to study at the School of Life. It’s about a dressmaker, Nina, under the thrall of the evil, charismatic Mischa, who fantasizes about abandoning him and everything to make a new start in Australia. It’s about a factory worker, Rosa, who’s given up on letting life happens, and who’s found a triumvirate of true love in the previously-mentioned Mischa and two hypermasculine Polish engineers, with whom she spends alternating evenings. It’s about an aging intellectual, Peter, who is engaged in one of Murdoch’s most-beloved impotent scholar tropes; the desperate quest to translate an ancient text, a key to which archaeology will simply find in due time in any case.
Could there be a more appealing set up for a reader like me? No, there could not. But sadly, this is a case where Murdoch’s interest in contemporary life undermined her attempt to craft a novel, and thus she ended up obsessing over an issue of the day with little lasting metaphorical potential. This is something I’m deeply sympathetic to. I spend the vast majority of my time with very contemporary literature, and I am always tickled to find authors who are able to capture something that could have seemed ephemeral about our moment in a way that has any lasting value at all — it feels like a bravery unique to the narrative artist to accomplish such a thing.
However, Murdoch’s execution of the postwar border plot in this novel just makes me feel relieved that she would soon abandon crass politics for her true callings, philosophy and fiction-making. Sometimes, she incorporates something excellent — the oblique way the sexual revolution appears in A Fairly Honorable Defeat, published two decades after The Flight from the Enchanter, is just perfect, and adds real depth to what became the dominant cultural narrative of that moment. The historicization of historical linguistics, too, works perfectly, both as metaphor and as record. I hate to say this, because I know that Murdoch was all too aware of the extent of her reliance on academic paradigms for the material of her novels.
But it worked. Just like it worked for David Markson and David Foster Wallace, and just like it works for Alison Bechdel, who isn’t even an academic. Once you’ve got access to the explanatory power of certain paradigms, you can’t help but incorporate them into your interdiegetic interpretations of social worlds. (Hi Joss, I’m looking at you. I’m looking at Checkpoint. I’m looking at Women’s Studies 101.) It is a shame, though, that academic paradigms are so inherently incommensurable with serious, apt, analysis of contemporary questions.
It’s interesting, actually, the way the very subject of Murdoch’s novels could be seen as the historicity of abstractions. Certainly, this is what she’s talking about when she’s talking about love and sex; her novels are filled with characters who, though they live in the social world, would readily reconstitute the thing if offered a persuasive argument in favor of a system truer to their desires or the good. Murdoch is careful to characterize the instigators of such reorganizations as enchanters, seducers, and inadequate to the tasks of friendship and love, but, as they also stand in for the author’s own judgment, they cannot help being completely lovable.
It is precisely their remove from the society they want to shake up that makes them good authors, their ability to inhabit the extra-historical perspective, which none of her other characters can access. They see the abstraction offered (say, in free love) as an abstraction of the purest kind, one possible to test scientifically. They fail to comprehend the extent to which they are unable to extract themselves from their muddled sociohistorical circumstances, and there’s no evidence to suggest that they would want to if they could.
The attempted suicide/suicide trick at the end of The Flight from the Enchanter was as cheap as a Bret Easton Ellis morality play, though, I should note, just as powerful in the moment of catharsis. It’s a cheap trick, though, and it’s not adequate to the ambiguity Murdoch was trying to draw out by connecting bureaucratic inadequacies to academic ones, all through the missing term of work, normally so pleasantly missing from Murdoch novels.
And her discussion of work in this novel is quotable, but ultimately essayistic. It doesn’t tell us who people are, nor does the genuinely embarrassing Polish-accented English she has the engineer brothers speak at great length. This kind of thematic approach to dialect was passe in modernism, and is simply uncouth in the mid-century. One would think that a thinker so interested in Lingusitics would be able to refrain from this kind of stereotypical dialect-as-reduction, but alas. Murdoch has her haters for a reason, and it has to do with the aesthetic and political conservatism she inadvertently espouses by writing such compelling academic-class characters, and so few fleshed-out other kinds.
In A Fairly Honorable Defeat, she’s able to make this failing into a plot point, much like Alan Ball would find himself capable of doing a few generations later, in Six Feet Under. I would never claim that literature has an obligation to address the social whole at every moment. On the contrary, I think that the micro-milieu is my favorite object of study for the Anglophone novel, and I think it’s possible to do wonderful work within this constraint. That said, the framing of the storyworld should be self-aware.
Looking forward to my next Murdoch! I have high hopes.