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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 715-717

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Book Review

Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction

Bran Nicol. Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction. NewYork: St. Martin's, 1999. xv + 166 pp.

Exploring "the ways in which Iris Murdoch's compulsive plots and characters are motivated by the question of the past," this lucid, insightful, and well-documented study restricts its focus to the six novels in which Murdoch chose to use first-person retrospective narration, namely, Under the Net (1954), A Severed Head (1961), The Italian Girl (1964), The Black Prince (1973), A Word Child (1975), and The Sea, the Sea (1978). The relatively narrow scope of the book affords a detailed examination of each of these works, while the retrospective profile enables Nicol to compare and contrast Murdoch's themes and techniques with those found in other postwar fictions concerned with the relations between present and past. Further, by concentrating on the problems and possibilities of first-person retrospective narration in this subset of Murdoch's corpus, Nicol is able to draw connections between the issues facing Murdoch's narrator-protagonists and issues explored in parallel ways by philosophers, psychoanalytic theorists, narratologists, and others.

Chapter 1, "Revisiting the Sublime and the Beautiful," works to situate Murdoch's self-styled "realism" in its literary-historical and more broadly cultural contexts. Noting that Murdoch's fiction "seems to position itself outside the central patterns of the post-war British novel," the author characterizes Murdoch's works as antimodernist rather than neo-realist; resisting "modernist notions of aesthetic autonomy," Murdoch's fiction "attempts to reproduce some of the characterological and formal achievements of the nineteenth-century novel and what she sees as Shakespeare's realism." Yet Murdoch's reproduction of realism is [End Page 715] better described as a reconceptualization, a project of rethinking on which her novelistic and philosophic interests converge. Dissatisfied with the impoverished picture of the individual emerging from then-contemporary developments in philosophy (logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, and so on), Murdoch sought to re-inject philosophical discourse with a moral function--even as she rejected prescriptive systems of belief. The result was a celebration of the irrational, accidental, and contingent aspects of subjective experience, with Murdoch viewing the novel as optimally suited for an exploration of these aspects of human existence. Accordingly, although Murdoch explicitly dissociated her own work from postmodern fiction, her novelistic practice can in fact be aligned with a particular current within postmodernism, one that "perseveres with the referential function of art, albeit problematically."

Chapters 2 and 3, "The Insistence of the Past" and "Author and Hero," continue to link Murdoch's work with surrounding literary and cultural developments while also setting the stage for the analyses of specific retrospective fictions in subsequent chapters. Nicol points out that Murdoch's retrospective novels share with psychoanalytic theory two core ideas: "the notion that the past will always find a way of making itself present (but never in precisely the way the subject wishes), and [the notion] that the subject is compelled to somehow make sense of it--in psychoanalytic terminology, to bring it into signification." Yet, for Nicol, these emphases translate into a diminished sense of history in Murdoch's retrospective fictions, a turn from collective versions of the past to a localized, personal past, in which the primary concern is the effect of a particular past experience (often traumatic) on a particular character. Meanwhile, chapter 3 draws on Bakhtin's theories to explain Murdoch's general preference for third-person narration; the polyphonic play of voices enabled by this narrative mode can be viewed as the formal counterpart to Murdoch's ethics, founded as it is on respect for genuine otherness. In her first-person narratives, however, Murdoch can still "expose the questionable attitudes of her heroes by a subtle process of distanciation." More precisely, what Dorrit Cohn describes as a scale stretching between "consonant" and "dissonant" narration can help account for the shifting, variable relations between the experiencing-I and the narrating-I in Murdoch's first-person retrospective novels. The I who narrates may...


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