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'The Bell' by Iris Murdoch
'Those who hope, by retiring from the world, to earn a holiday from human frailty, in themselves and others, are usually disappointed.'—Review #205
When I can’t decide which book to read next, I often look for a sign from the universe. Perhaps a friend will mention a book that’s on my never-shrinking bedside heap, and I’ll go with it. Maybe I’ll come across a title in a magazine or in someone else’s newsletter. And sometimes, a noteworthy person will display a stack of books on Twitter, like this one with ESPN NFL analyst Mina Kimes to promote her appearance on books podcast The Stacks:
It caught my eye like a laser beam from the middle of the pile:‘The Bell’ by Iris Murdoch, a novel that has been on my stack for months. (A quick aside: The universe also sent me a second and more direct signal when Murdoch communicated with me from beyond the grave via Twitter, but we’ll discuss that another time.) I had wanted to return to Murdoch’s work after having been blown away by ‘The Sea, the Sea,’ so I dove in.
Here’s the cover:
In the English countryside is a centuries-old abbey where Benedictine nuns are cloistered. A nearby estate, Imber Court, is where a religious community has formed with people seeking a spiritual and peaceful escape from modern life. The group includes men and women who spend their days in prayer, tilling the land for produce to sell and listening to classical music. One member also likes to capture and tag birds. A teenage member is struggling with his sexuality. The leader of the group is wrestling with his feelings for the teen as well as the fallout of a prior scandal that cost him a teaching job. Another member has a dark secret. And another intends to become a nun, like:
Into this scene arrives Dora Greenfield, the young wife of an older and ill-tempered art historian named Paul. Their marriage is on the rocks, with Dora having left Paul for an interval, as you’ll read below. She wants to reunite, so he tells her to meet him at Imber Court, where he’s been studying old manuscripts. Dora was in college when she met Paul, and has yet to figure herself out. She’s awkward, tends to run away from her problems and is frequently absentminded, like when she’s distracted by a butterfly while leaving a train and forgets her luggage. She’s like:
Dora learns that the abbey has a bell tower, but no bell. Legend has it that centuries ago a sinful outrage at the convent caused the bell to fly out of the tower and plunge into a nearby lake, never to be seen again. A new bell is due to be installed at the abbey in the coming months. Ahead of its arrival, though, one of the members finds the old bell while swimming in the lake. That discovery sets off a sequence of events for Dora and the others that’s harrowing and heartbreaking, but also humorous. I wish I could tell you more about it, but it’s too good to spoil. The back half of this book had me like:
‘The Bell’ offers a fascinating exploration of religion and sex, as well as of the tragic and cathartic experiences we go through as we try to figure out our true selves. It’s beautifully written, and I enjoyed following Dora’s journey and also those of the other characters at Imber Court and the abbey. I loved this book, and I look forward to reading more novels by Iris Murdoch. But until then, I highly recommend ‘The Bell.’
How it begins:
Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason. The absent Paul, haunting her with letters and telephone bells and imagined footsteps on the stairs had begun to be the greater torment. Dora suffered from guilt, and with guilt came fear. She decided at last that the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence.
Dora was still very young, though she vaguely thought of herself as past her prime. She came of a lower middle-class London family. Her father had died when she was nine years old, and her mother, with whom she had never got on very well, had married again. When Dora was eighteen she entered the Slade school of art with a scholarship, and had been there two years when she encountered Paul. The role of an art student suited Dora. It was indeed the only role she had ever been able whole-heartedly to play. She had been an ugly and wretched schoolgirl. As a student she grew plump and peach-like and had a little pocket money of her own, which she spent on big multi-coloured skirts and jazz records and sandals. At that time, which although it was only three years ago now seemed unimaginably remote, she had been happy. Dora, who had so lately discovered in herself a talent for happiness, was the more dismayed to find that she could be happy neither with her husband nor without him.
Paul Greenfield, who was thirteen years older than his wife, was an art historian connected with the Courtauld Institute. He came of an old family of German bankers and had money of his own. He had been born in England and attended an English public school, and preferred not to remember the distinction of his ancestors. Although his assets were never idle, he did not speak of stocks and shares. He first met Dora when he came to lecture on medieval wood-carving at the Slade.
‘The Bell’ by Iris Murdoch was first published in the United States by The Viking Press in 1958. It was published in the U.S. by Penguin Books in 2001 with an introduction by A.S. Byatt. 296 pages. $14.88 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #204
Read this: Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of the excellent newsletter Book Post, offers an interesting, nuanced and thoughtful take on the recent Roald Dahl controversy:
Read this, too: ‘The Worlds of Italo Calvino’ by Merve Emre in The New Yorker is a terrific in-depth appreciation of Calvino’s work. I particularly enjoyed the section about ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler,’ which I reviewed and loved. Also, as a small-time book reviewer, I found this passage oddly reassuring:
He reminds us that any choice one makes of what to read is made against a backdrop of deep and humbling ignorance, and that any attempt to call a book the best or the worst book one has read this month, this year, or in this lifetime requires a necessary self-deception regarding one’s own knowledge of literature.
I plan to review several Calvino short-story collections later this year. Keep an eye out for it!
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,
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I listened to the episode, but it doesn’t appear that ‘The Bell’ was actually discussed. (Maybe I missed it? Like Dora, I, too, can be absentminded.) Alas, I would have liked to hear Kimes’s take on it.