For all of its faults, I have the Modern Library’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th century to thank for turning me onto the work of Iris Murdoch. Since 1999 I have read 15, well now 16, of her novels. Some I definitely like better than others but all of them are eminently worth reading. I am particularly fond of her early work. The first Murdoch I read was her first novel Under the Net. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember feeling an instant affinity for the book and Murdoch’s writing. Published in 1956, her second novel The Flight From the Enchanter brought back the same feeling of discovery and excitement that I felt when I read Under the Net thirteen years ago.
I have often said that Murdoch’s novels are like soap operas for literati. While grounded in unexceptional circumstances and familiar settings, her novels tend to have casts of characters that think long and hard about art, and politics, and morals, and god, and love and principles and then somewhat implausibly act on their convictions. They are full of high melodrama covered in a cloak of philosophical musings. Her characters rarely have affairs on the basis of mere lust. But they do have affairs, lots of them–especially in the later novels. But I am making observations, not judgements. I love this world of high stakes sexual politics. When I read her books I am always left thinking that the civil service and academia in Britain is nothing if not a steaming cauldron of sexual antics.
I realize I haven’t said much specific about this particular Murdoch novel. Well to quote the back of the book it is “elegant, sparkling and unputdownable…” I couldn’t agree more. Set in 1950s London, Enchanter follows a group of people, Rosa Keepe in particular, who adore and abhor the enigmatic Mischa Fox. As I read the book I tried hard to think of a contemporary example in real life, TV, film, or literature of a group of acquaintences who would choose someone “to be their god”. I think that the hero worship Murdoch writes about in Enchanter may not be relatable taken as a whole–as a life-organizing force, but I do think we all have moments of lunacy and bad judement based on such worship.