Thursday, 29 January 2004

Iris Murdoch: The Message to the Planet (1989)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1989
Review number: 1217

Towards the end of her career, Murdoch's novels got longer, following the general trend in fiction over the last couple of decades. Both The Message to the Planet and The Book and the Brotherhood are about twice as long as Under the Net or The Bell. The problem with the extra length is that Murdoch did not really seem to have more to say, and with The Message to the Planet I felt that a fair amount of the book seemed tedious, not an accusation which could be made about her early work.

The theme of The Message to the Planet is religious revelation; some aspect of religious feeling and thought is important in every one of her novels. The central character is Marcus Vallar, a strange man who performs a miracle: a former friend on his deathbed - possibly already dead - is cured when Marcus speaks a few words to him. The rest of the novel flows out of this event, as the other characters react in various ways and as Marcus tries to come to terms with its consequences. Since the principal viewpoint in the novel is that of his friend and sceptical disciple Alfred Ludens, Marcus remains an enigmatic figure defined more by the ideas others have about his character than by his own internal life, as he retreats to a private nursing home.

The parallels with the gospels are clear, even if Ludens - the equivalent of the evangelist - is not himself a believer. It is a little heavy-handed, and this is really what makes the novel fall flat. The implications of Murdoch's portrayal - that we might not get a completely accurate portrayal of the character of Jesus from the gospel writers - might disturb some devout Christians; but to most of the rest of us it isn't particularly profound. The way in which religion is portrayed contrasts with the depiction of the religious experience in The Bell, which must be one of the best novels ever written in this respect.

The Message to the Planet suddenly improves about a hundred pages from the end (that is, after the reader has got through 450). This is partly because the plot begins to move, after a lengthy stasis; with the gospel parallels in mind, this part could be considered to be Marcus' Passion story. The novel remains inconclusive; we never find out whether there actually was a message to the planet, and if so, what it said or who sent it. It is questionable even whether it is Marcus or Ludens who is the messenger, as Marcus hails Ludens by the title (the only time it appears in the text) and has immense difficulty in putting what he wants to say in words; the insights he wants to develop would become trivial if turned into English, hence his interest in universal and original languages.

There are interesting things in The Message to the Planet, but it is not a novel where the reader is absorbed by every page, which was my reaction to some of Murdoch's early works. I'm fairy sure that if it had been the first one of her books that I'd read, I would never have bothered to read any others.


paullamb said...

But we do finally get the message. Gildas provides it in the closing pages. We are all accidental beings, we have no meaning, and all we can do is be good to each other.

The menage described between Jack, Alison, and Franca has a curious parallel to Mudoch's own life, as suggested by this article:

Simon McLeish said...

In which case, it's interesting that I didn't pick it up. I probably never became sufficiently engaged with the novel - I can now hardly remember it.