Sunday, 31 August 2008

The Message to the Planet

I've just finished reading The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch. Alfred Ludens, an intellectual, Jewish by birth but secular by inclination, is convinced that a one-time member of his circle of friends, Marcus Vallar, has a unique message for the whole of humankind if only he can be guided and encouraged to work it out. Vallar began life as a high-achieving mathematician only to change tack and become a highly successful painter. At the beginning of the novel, he has withdrawn from the world, much to the relief of most of his acquaintances, who felt insulted and intimidated by him. One, Patrick, appears to be terminally ill. It is alleged that the sickness is the result of a “curse” placed on him by the charismatic Vallar. Ludens takes this as an opportunity to track down Vallar, in the belief that if anyone can save Patrick, he can. Once he has found his man, Ludens decides to stay with him and his daughter, Irina, in order to help him work out his elusive message.
What follows is a virtuoso study of our capacity to understand (or deceive) ourselves and each other. This played out around The Axle Stone (like Vallar, an exile of sorts - in this case, from the Avebury stone circle), which stands close to the country cottage which Irina Vallar has arranged for her father to live in.
The difficulty of writing a novel in which philosophy plays a significant part is that it's hard to make any philosophy comprehensible without putting the forward movement of the novel on hold. It's also difficult to make it convincing: it's one thing to create the illusion of a garden or a kitchen, it's quite another to create the illusion of worthwhile philosophy going on. Murdoch -a philosopher herself- succeeds as a novelist on both counts, but I can't describe how without giving too much away.
The book came out in 1989. I finished reading it last night. Certain things about it (for example, the way characters find their religious inheritance inescapable, but difficult or impossible to embrace) left me wondering what Murdoch would be writing now, were she alive, given the interesting times we live in.

1 comment:

The Weaver of Grass said...

I have always thought Iris Murdoch's novels did not necessariy reflect the time they were written in. They have a kind of timeless, "other worldish" quality - I love her work but you have to start with the premise that rarely are any of her characters what I would think of a "normal" or "ordinary".