Review of Iris Murdoch's An Accidental Man

I didn’t know what to make of it. There was no emotional effect from what had been most interesting throughout. I realised I had yet to read the introduction to An Accidental Man. I hadn’t wanted to read it beforehand, to avoid corrupting my innocent eye. I must’ve known which character failed the moral test on watching two strangers knife another when I was reading but by the time I’d finished I was attributing the failure to another character. I’ve done that before, conflating two characters, but Murdoch was very good at distinguishing each of her host of characters so the fault is mine, except the better character wasn’t that good either or I wasn’t sure the dilemma he faced was fairly posed and could’ve been motivated by what I was falsely attributing to him. I scanned through the book to make sure the introducer was right and I wrong.

I wasn’t sure how I’d behave on seeing two men knifing a third. One doesn’t know how one might instinctively respond and it is an instinctive response in the first instance. I’ve said, “stop that!” on seeing somebody brain somebody else, thinking I’d then have to act as I didn’t want if he didn’t, so I’m guessing I might have done the like in an American city street. I’m much less likely on seeing protesters in a Soviet society to go over and shake their hands and become involved and be needlessly arrested myself. The better character had committed himself to another and has second thoughts. So? He’s entitled to. I find it less convincing he should therefore do what he does decide on because it’s good. Is it? He himself doesn’t think he’s all that great a man. He’s not. I found myself anticipating what the author would have the character do next and not just that character but what others would do next or have done to them from the exigency of the plot it took me a while to work out.

There’s an intricate philosophical discussion which clarifies things for him that I’m not sure I followed successfully, something to do with a link where god would be if he existed but doesn’t, yet the link still holds good. Seems a shaky argument to me unless you take it a step farther, which Murdoch doesn’t, and conclude the god that doesn’t exist was a projection of that good in the first place, reversing grandma’s dictum that good is god with nothing added to god is good with nothing taken away and now surplus to moral requirements.

Murdoch is putting herself in the position of god, which makes sense of the rationale of the book, that of the omniscient author monitoring her characters, distancing them a little from the reader and herself almost coming through the text transparently.

I was just thinking she doesn’t do working class characters when she did, quite effectively, though I doubted she’d ever have one as a hero or anti-hero. The introducer says she was responding to criticism that she never did.

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the official website for the appreciation of Scottish playwright and poet Betty Clark (Joan Ure)


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