Tuesday, 15 July 2003

Iris Murdoch: Bruno's Dream (1969)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1171

An old man lying on his deathbed, barely understanding what happens around him, may seem an unpromising central character for a novel. It may be that this is part of the reason that Bruno's Dream is not one of Murdoch's best novels, but it is certainly a theme which suited her style, which itself has dreamlike qualities, more than it would that of many writers.

Bruno's concerns are those which might be considered typical of someone in his position. He wants to seek a reconciliation with his son Miles, with whom he quarrelled because of his marriage to an Indian woman against Bruno's wishes. He suspects that those who care for him are doing so for the sake of his possessions, principally a stamp collection which is eventually destroyed when his house is flooded. Bruno's illness has affected his mind, so that a lot of the time he doesn't remember who he is talking to; he has more interest in memories of his past than in the people around him, so he misses the dramatic events which occur in the lives of the other characters, prompted by the return of Miles to the fold.

The point is, of course, the reality or otherwise of what's described, as the novel's title signposts. The story may be written in the third person, but is it actually happening or is it Bruno's dream? The reader cannot be sure (though the title for me tips the balance to fantasy). As a dream, it is remarkably lucid for someone in Bruno's condition (one of the reasons why the reader might feel it is not a dream at all), and he is able to consistently invent all kinds of things about people whose names he can't even remember when he (thinks he) meets them.

There are two famous quotations from Jane Austen in which she describes the small scale of the novels she wrote. "3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on", and the limits of her work described as "the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which with so fine a Brush". Of later writers, Iris Murdoch is one of the few who shared this delight in the miniature. There are only seven or eight living characters (a couple of people who die before the start of the novel also have an effect on the plot). In a novel on so small a scale, the author has to work hard to keep the reader's interest, so it is not surprising when the melodramatic creeps in (think of the number of elopements in Jane Austen). Here, melodrama adds to the dreamlike atmosphere - events like the flood and a farcical duel seem to be almost anti-realistic.

Coming to the end of what I have to say about this novel, it seems that there is more to Bruno's Dream than I thought when actually reading it. Even if it is not one of Murdoch's greatest novels, it is definitely worth reading.

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