Review: The Bell by Iris Murdoch

I’m not sure where I found out that I should read The Bell, Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel about a religious community in western England. But I have a hazy feeling that it had something to do with witches. There may not be identified witches in this book (there are nuns), but the word is significantly deployed twice, and where there is smoke there is fire.

The story begins with Dora Greenfield, a 21-year-old woman who loves life and acts before thinking, running away from her art historian husband. He is said to be “violent”, and his violence is enacted through his stifling and jealous behaviour. After a brief fling Dora returns to him, now ensconced in a religious “lay community” in Gloucestershire.

The lay community is set up at Imber Court, a grand-but-decaying house next door to a 12th-century Benedictine abbey where none but nuns are allowed. The court is surrounded by verdant woodland and enclosed by a lake. Its inhabitants are all seeking spiritual reform in some way or another. There’s the married couple seeking a new connection; Toby, an 18-year-old student who thinks he wants to be a priest; Nick Fawley, the sullen gatekeeper with a dark past; and most compellingly Michael, the leader, who is wrestling with an agonising desire. Into this world Dora comes bumbling, upsetting its careful harmony.

The mud of the lake is said to hide an old bell, which flew out of its tower after a nun refused to admit she’d been keeping a lover outside the abbey’s walls. She later drowned herself. This is a novel full of portents and signs; don’t enter expecting happy endings.

For the first three-quarters the novel sustains a breath-taking narrative swoop, rising effortlessly upwards to a point of sensual and spiritual revolution. I was genuinely surprised by the plot’s revelations and profoundly moved by the characters’ dilemmas. I found myself holding my breath: could Murdoch sustain it? Could she land it? In the end the climax relies on a series of improbable events that flirt with the ridiculous, ditching the carefully constructed world and characterisations to pull it all down. But I admired the drawn-out coda which at least provides some closure if not satisfaction.

But in that first half the novel struck me like, well, a bell. Its frank depiction of sexual liberation and particularly homosexual desire feels light years ahead of its time, a bolt from the past that continues to resonate today. (It is also fairly transgressive in a Lolita sort of way. But 1950s, hey?) The summer heat, mirror-like lake and long walks through the woods buzzing with life reminded me strongly of Luca Guadagnino’s film Call Me By Your Name.

The Bell also put me in mind of another Guadagnino film, his witch-flick Suspiria. Like the German coven in the film, the abbey is a female-only society almost completely cut off from the world. While there is never any actual magic and Murdoch is careful not to show anything but Christian devoutness among the nuns, there is definitely something witchy going on at Imber, among the dark waters of the lake and the swooping nightjars that come out in the evening among the alleys of trees. Perhaps Christianity and witchcraft are not as opposite as they appear. Also consider this the launch of my campaign to have Guadagnino direct a version of The Bell!

Murdoch was a known philosophiser and for those in the know (not me) there is the bonus of a layer of philosophical debate between the members of the lay community. Kant and others get name-dropped. The main quarrel is represented by James, who sees spiritual enlightenment coming through a rigid adherence to God’s rules; and Michael, who sees self-reflection and self-improvement as more important.

Murdoch’s writing is a joy. I can’t think of another book where I was so aware and sure of space – never once did I find myself in the court ground wondering where I was standing in relation to everything else. It sounds mundane but is actually extraordinarily tricky to pull off without being boring. Her attention to the interiority of her characters is matched by the land around them, full of late-summer light, reflections and hazy mood. Here for instance is midday, “cloudless now, rising to a peak of intense blue that was almost audible.” Later Dora, in a post-coital funk, “contemplated this depth of space, unsure whether to call it blue or grey.” Or Toby enjoying, “the charm of swimming in still waters, that sense of passing through the looking-glass, of disturbing and yet entering that other scene that grows out of the roots of this one”. This book is full of such exquisiteness.

Gay rating: 4/5 for perceptive portrayals of queer desire

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