Saturday, 2 August 2014

THE BELL by Iris Murdoch

I seem to be reading a number of books at the moment that might best be described as 'unexpectedly religious,' and THE BELL is one of these. It tells the story of a commune that has sprung up around an Abbey in rural England. Not everyone at the commune is there for religious reasons, but everyone reaches a new idea of the meaning of their lives by being there.

The central character is a man named Michael, who is gay. This is the forties, so he doesn't think of himself as being gay, however, but as a 'pervert,' and this is at the heart of all his problems. He wants to be a priest, but feels he cannot, and spends much of his energy trying not to be kiss attractive young men (Don't we all). He is succeeding pretty well and suppressing himself until an eighteen year old arrives in the commune, and he kisses him by accident. Cue much agonising, both for him, and the boy, Toby: "Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment once can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people's imperfection."

I tried to feel for Michael, but it was hard to taking truly seriously the idea that being gay might genuinely be perceived as such a curse. I guess it's testament to how far our society has come, that I can struggle to relate.

While I couldn't really care for the plot, I continue to admire Murdoch's writing very much. Try this, about a young woman from London visiting the commune:
She was astonished by the variety of creatures which could be seen on even the most casual stroll about the estate. She felt the slightly scandalised suprise of the true town dweller that all these beasts should be here, displaying themselves, quite free, and getting on with their own lives perfectly unmindful of human patronage and protection.

Or this, on the Abbey's walls: "The moonlight made the high wall look insubstantial and yet somehow alive, with that tense look of deserted human places at night." I love that - 'the tense look' - I think about it often now when I'm in cities at night.

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