The Bell

Interrupting RoutineI work as tutor and librarian at Blackfriars Hall Oxford the smallest and most medieval of the University of Oxford colleges and also a Dominican priory A few years ago Blackfria

Interrupting RoutineI work as tutor and librarian at Blackfriars Hall Oxford, the smallest and most medieval of the University of Oxford colleges and also a Dominican priory. A few years ago Blackfriars acquired a bell to call the friars to prayer. The sound of the bell does indeed create a definite atmosphere in the place; as also does its timing since it rings, like its larger fellow at Christ Church College, according to solar time - about six minutes behind GMT. The midday call to the Angelus therefore is somewhat disconcerting for passers by who nervously check their watches. I have come to believe that this slight disruption, this interruption, is precisely the bell’s function, intended or not. Paradoxically: a routine that interrupts routine. One way to interpret Murdoch’s novel is as just such an interruption in the lives of its characters.A.S. Byatt calls The Bell Murdoch’s first ‘English’ novel. And it certainly creates a distinctive atmosphere, one so dense, thick, and humid in the Summer heat that it feels like green cotton wool - simultaneously inhibiting and cushioning movement. The characters, mostly middle class professionals, each might have ‘issues’; but all are nevertheless cradled in the social solidity of a 1950’s bourgeois English culture that hopes against hope that it will remain 1939 forever. They live in an existential routine that seems fixed; they are stuck... largely with themselves.People ‘get on’ as if on a trajectory with the defined and relatively narrow limits of Oxbridge graduates in a post-war world they find alien and confusing. Their individual worries, however, don’t inhibit their confidence, material or spiritual, in being English. They are, of course, completely unaware of this. How could it be otherwise? But their Englishness is the necessarily unstated subject of the book. The narrator would only spoil the narrative if she gave the game away; introspection is not to be encouraged, “A belief in Original Sin should not lead us to probe the filth of our minds.” Irony is after all English group therapy.Opening with a very civilised adultery, leading to an even more civilised reconciliation for which the outgoing lover provides transportation to the railway station, there is no conflict which can’t be solved if one just has the patience to wait it out. And for heavens sake keep one’s mouth shut. Intimate communication is far too perilous a venture. Much preferable to rely on one’s friends to buoy one up without making a fuss, usually with a little G&T, or possibly even a bit of evening Compline before bed.The High Church tradition, the antithesis of her Irish Presbyterian background, is something Murdoch became intimately familiar with in Oxford. Her College, Somerville, is just past the end of St. Giles’, a street along which John Henry Newman started his career as an Anglican vicar at one end and wound up a Catholic Cardinal at the other. Halfway along, and touching Blackfriars, is Pusey House, named for Newman’s colleague in the liturgical revival of Anglicanism (the Oxford Movement in fact). Pusey House is often more Catholic than the local Catholic churches since it can both anticipate the introduction of new ritual or revert to ancient practices without consulting the Vatican (Pusey House also has the best collection of Vatican documents in Oxford).Some consider High Anglicanism to be a mimicry of Catholicism. It’s not. It is true English Catholicism, or better said, Catholicism in the English mode. Many Oxford colleges conduct Evensong and Compline services daily during term, using English Plainsong or Gregorian chant according to preference. These are sensually pleasing, one might call them erotic, events. They employ all the smells and bells of Catholic ritual but also emit a vaguely camp rebelliousness - directed at both Low Church Anglicans as well as the straight-laced (historically Irish) Catholic masses.This Anglo-Catholicism provides a great deal of the dark green, cotton wool, comfort of The Bell. The enclosed convent of Anglican nuns in Imber is not an antithesis to the repressed erotic desires of the characters who fetch up together across the lake in a half-derelict country pile of Imber Court; it is a spiritual celebration of the erotic (One is reminded of Teresa of Avila and her swooning for Christ, her Spouse). I know of at least three similar communities within 15 minutes drive of Oxford. And I lived in one of these while I wrote my doctoral dissertation.*This kind of community is not a place to escape desire but a place in which desire can be explored in a way that is uniquely English: through patient ritual, agricultural and industrial as well as religious. As the medieval philosophers taught: through practice one can act one’s way into a moral life. “The great thing about a dog” says one of the residents “is that it can be trained to love you.” And not just dogs. Humans too can be taught to love trough practice; but not through conversation, idle or therapeutic. So, “Meals were taken in silence at Imber.”In a sense, therefore, sex is as much a religious practice in Anglo-Catholicism as it is in the Buddhism of the Kama Sutra. It needn’t be advertised as such, that would require talk which would compromise the effort fatally. But Murdoch makes the equivalence explicit in her description of the psychic state of her main character, a homosexual: “...in some curious way the emotion which fed both [his religious feeling and homosexual orientation] arose deeply from the same source.”English resourcefulness is to be found in this dance of sex and religion, which is carried out as much to the rhythm of an English country house as of a Benedictine convent. The mustiness of each is additive: “There was a stale smell, like the smell of old bread, the smell of an institution.” A concise summary really of the English Baroque. Everything is surface, but brightly lighted surface so that nothing is actually hidden, “All the electric lights were so bright at Imber.”The inhabitants are essentially misfits, and are recruited as such, “people... who can live neither in the world nor out of it. They are a kind of sick people, whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely...” Each of these defective characters has a place, a duty really, in the overall choreography of an operatic ballet in Imber Court, a definite role that fits snugly into an overall ensemble. Dora is the dim beauty, the soprano of the piece. She has no comprehension of religion and only the most instrumentally sterile view of sex; but she is not malicious, “That she had no memory made her generous.” She is a central figure, a sort of goddess of creation (and of course therefore sex), who tends to get lost in Murdoch’s narrative turbulence. Paul, Dora’s husband, is the operatic baritone, for whom neither sex nor religion is about passion but domesticity. He desires Dora as housekeeper and mother for his children; and religion is part of an ordered family bliss. His lust, such as it is, is paterfamilial and conventional not perverse.The director/producer is Mrs. Mark (married to Mr. Mrs. Mark), a somewhat beefy person in long skirts, with “well-developed calves.” She is a type of English proto-hippie perhaps, an evangelical Mrs Danvers, living a life of gentile, procedural poverty on someone else’s dime, never without a ‘cause’. Without her, neither sex nor religion could flourish at Imber. She is the liturgical and social hub, the enforcer of strict adherence to the rubrics, “It’s not like a hotel and we do expect our guests to fit in – and I think that’s what they like best too,” she politely commands. She also ensures that conversation never becomes intrusive, “That’s another little religious rule that we try to follow. No gossip.” What takes place outside Imber, remains outside Imber.Mrs. Mark is the agent of Michael Meade, the somewhat reluctant leader, whose family estate Imber Court is. In subsequent decades Michael would have been identified as the ‘cult leader’ of the residents, not as sinister as Jim Jones or as commercial as Werner Erhard perhaps but still of some unaccountably charismatic incompetence. Michael has been inspired by the Abbess of the Benedictine convent to ‘minister’ to folk who are neither clerical nor secular but what now might be called ‘seekers’. He is a homosexual.Catherine is the mezzo-soprano and, innovatively, the prima ballerina of the piece who is immediately identified by Dora as a rival. Catherine is imminently to become a postulant in the convent; or, as her twin brother perceives the situation, to be swallowed alive by the institutional monster of religious passion. Toby, Catherine’s male sexual counterpart, is the the pious, virginal counter-tenor. He is the unsure novice, spiritually as well as sexually unformed.The eponymous bell constitutes what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin - a motivating force whose function is to set the narrative in motion but that remains invisible. Essential therefore, although apparently trivial. It is Dora and Toby, at ends of the sexual/spiritual spectrum, who release the bell from the primal waters in which it has been hidden. Driven by the ‘event’ of the bell, the characters carom around the confines of Imber Court, impelling each other to acts of spiritual lust and material folly in a marvellously English way. And of course interrupting their lives profoundly, not just for them but for all of Murdoch’s generation.* In fact this form of Anglo-Catholic lay community was inspired by the so-called Distributist Movement of the 1920’s and 30’s. This was a Catholic attempt, promoted by the likes of GK Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, to find a ‘middle way’ between Capitalism and Communism. It’s ideal was a sort of medieval economy dominated by small agricultural producers who owned and worked their own land. A few of Distributism’s ideological remnants still exist in Britain, Canada and Australia.Bestseller The Bell Creat Iris Murdoch A.S. Byatt Viral Book A lay community of thoroughly mixed up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an enclosed order of nuns A new bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered Dora Greenfield, erring wife, returns to her husband Michael Mead, leader of the community, is confronted by Nick Fawley, with whom he had disastrous homosexual relations, while the wise oldA lay community of thoroughly mixed up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an enclosed order of nuns A new bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered Dora Greenfield, erring wife, returns to her husband Michael Mead, leader of the community, is confronted by Nick Fawley, with whom he had disastrous homosexual relations, while the wise old Abbess watches and prays and exercises discreet authority And everyone, or almost everyone, hopes to be saved, whatever that may meanIris Murdoch s funny and sad novel is about religion, the fight between good and evil, and the terrible accidents of human frailty.. Dame Jean Iris MurdochIrish born British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease She wanted, through her novels, to reach all possible readers, in different ways and by different means by the excitement of her story, its pace and its comedy, through its ideas and its philosophical implications, through the numinous atmosphere of her own original and created world the world she must have glimpsed as she considered and planned her first steps in the art of fiction John Bayley in Elegy for Iris, 1998 enpedia wiki Iris_Mur. Popular Books The Bell I love Iris Murdoch. I've come to expect certain things from her novels: one astonishing, humorous transition (here, it comes early, on a train); at least 2 abrupt sexually-centered plot twists that make me exclaim out loud on the subway; a few incredible lines that border on philosophy. Most of all, there's the sense in her novels that anything is possible - as the excellent A.S. Byatt interview puts it, she has the instincts of the 19th century novelist, though she's thoroughly contemporary. One caution: DON'T READ THE BACK JACKET or any info if you are interested in this book. The first surprise in the book is wonderful if, like me, you don't see it coming.I didn't love THE BELL as much as THE SEA, THE SEA or A SEVERED HEAD, because it feels as if Murdoch is still shaking off some structural ghosts from more conventional fiction. This was her 4th novel, and the set-up is great, very reminiscent of "Black Narcissus." A lay-community has set up camp in a mansion and founded a spiritual community outside the gates of an old Abbey, which is waiting for a giant bell. In her eagerness to people the community, Murdoch's generosity with supporting characters occasionally left me a bit confused (lots of boring male names), and the complexity of the set-up and the slight wrapping-up, mid-century feeling of the ending slowed me down. The three perspective characters - Dora, a flighty aspiring painter with a harsh husband; Michael, the leader of the community w/ a secret past; Toby, a teenager of boundless energy - carry this book, and Murdoch uses various bells, both metaphorical and actual, to great effect. There's a spectacular sequence with birds, and the nuns, sitting invisible on the grounds, add a unique tension to the action.Once this gets going (I don't want to spoil anything because it's so good), once it turns Murdochian, I was thrilled. There is an incredible revelation from the headlights of a car - a device she reuses almost identically in THE SEA, THE SEA - and things proceed from there with a relentless sexual logic that I adored. And the writing!"Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into the opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people's imperfection.""Memories of the previous evening returned to him vividly, and he had a curious sense of being unfaithful, followed by a feeling of the utter messiness of everything. Violence is born of the desire to escape oneself."If you're interested in Murdoch, I'd start with A SEVERED HEAD so you can build trust in her capacity for insanity - I might have put this down after 40 pages if I didn't have faith in her, and I'm very glad that I didn't.
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  1. Dame Jean Iris MurdochIrish born British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease She wanted, through her novels, to reach all possible readers, in different ways and by different means by the excitement of her story, its pace and its comedy, through its ideas and its philosophical implications, through the numinous atmosphere of her own original and created world the world she must have glimpsed as she considered and planned her first steps in the art of fiction John Bayley in Elegy for Iris, 1998 enpedia wiki Iris_Mur

742 Reply to “The Bell”

  1. I love Iris Murdoch I ve come to expect certain things from her novels one astonishing, humorous transition here, it comes early, on a train at least 2 abrupt sexually centered plot twists that make me exclaim out loud on the subway a few incredible lines that border on philosophy Most of all, there s the sense in her novels that anything is possible as the excellent A.S Byatt interview puts it, she has the instincts of the 19th century novelist, though she s thoroughly contemporary One caution [...]


  2. Interrupting RoutineI work as tutor and librarian at Blackfriars Hall Oxford, the smallest and most medieval of the University of Oxford colleges and also a Dominican priory A few years ago Blackfriars acquired a bell to call the friars to prayer The sound of the bell does indeed create a definite atmosphere in the place as also does its timing since it rings, like its larger fellow at Christ Church College, according to solar time about six minutes behind GMT The midday call to the Angelus ther [...]


  3. There is a story about the bell ringing sometimes in the bottom of the lake, and how if you hear it it portends a death The Bell is an early philosophical novel by Iris Murdoch, the Irish academic and Oxford professor of Philosophy, who also wrote in total 26 novels This is her fourth novel, first published in 1958 The first of her novels to be shot through with ethical considerations, The Bell remains the one novel in her entire output where the moral conundrums are the most explicit Until now, [...]


  4. Opening lines Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him She decided six month 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 absences.Well, colour me intrigued by this passage and thrilled to f [...]


  5. There were many people who can live neither in the world nor out of it They are a kind of sick people, whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely and present day society, with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure, offers no home to these unhappy souls Work, as it now is can rarely offer satisfaction to the half contemplative In The Bell, we find such a group of [...]


  6. he felt himself to be one of them, who can live neither in the world nor out of it In 1950s England it was illegal to be homosexual In this novel it s 1950s England and Michael is homosexual He s created a mysterious religious community nestled away in the secluded woods which also serves as storage space for his desires But you really can t hide from who you are, can you And Dora, a young woman unhappily married to an older man, also starts to figure out that this kind of repression isn t susta [...]


  7. Several characters come to a lay community attached to a Benedictine nunnery It is a place of sanctuary, a bridge between the secular world outside and the closed, contemplative, spiritual convent Most of the characters are looking for some kind of peace, although not all of them find it This novel is widely regarded as Murdoch s masterpiece I have not read all of her books, but this one is excellent.


  8. There were many people, she said, and Michael was but too ready to credit her since he felt himself to be one of them, who can live neither in the world nor out of it They are a kind of sick people, whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely and present day society, with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure, offers no home to these unhappy souls.The voice of the [...]


  9. this book is so good so so good it is one of those books of which i ask myself, how did she do it how did she come up with a story like this what tremendous formal control does it take to write such a seemingly simple story and pack it with so much stuff the beginning is a bit Middlemarchian, in that a rather naive girl marries an older man who is passionate about his scholarship we never learn whether his scholarship is any good and also tremendously narcissistic, manipulative, and abusive mayb [...]


  10. I really don t know why so many people like The Bell when Murdoch has written better books I find the Bell cumbersome and lacking soul Sure the characters are ok, but Murdoch became better at creating fully fledged people AND mixed in philosophy at the same time The story is about a group of rather nasty people who go on a retreat at an abbey but are entangled in each other s lives with the bell being the focal part of their lives and possibly their redemption from being materialistic and having [...]


  11. This was the first Iris Murdoch novel I read, many years ago now, and straight away I was hooked For months afterwards I was obsessed with her books, and read them one after the other Her appeal is both simple and complex Murdoch is a great storyteller, a brilliant inventor of plots Typically, her stories start out like realistic novels of English life, only to become increasingly bizarre, with outrageous entanglements of relationship and motive, recognitions, reversals, melodramatic confrontati [...]



  12. Iris Murdoch s fourth novel shows a strengthening of fictional power while continuing her philosophical inspection of human character I love the opening lines Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason Dora is one of the two main characters and represents the amoral personality She is a fairly young woman, married to an older man While living mainly on nerves and feelings, she has a horror of any sort of confin [...]


  13. Another amazing book from Iris Murdoch She managed once to bring up some questions about types of behaviour in this life, in a very londonese like spirit, gently uncovering mysteries of human nature.


  14. It was just that Dora had then estimated, with a devastating exactness which was usually alien to her, how much of sheer contempt there was in Paul s love and always would be, she reflected, since she had few illusions about her ability to change herself It did not occur to her to wonder if Paul might change, or indeed into hope from him anything at all She felt his contempt as destructive of her, and his love, consequently unwelcome Yet all the time, in a shy and round about way, she loved him [...]


  15. whenever i pick up an iris murdoch novel, it seems initially that i am embarking on a tale with conventional romance trappings, and then, very quickly, there is a moment of unease, and i begin to understand that she has lured me away from the safe harbour where her story begins, and that the universe her characters inhabit might be familiar to me but that i am not conversant with its rules the bell was no exception at first it seemed that the primary story would be that of dora, the desultory wi [...]


  16. Religious community life tension, spirituality, suppressed sexuality, practicality Less overtly philosophical than Under the Net.The Guardian selected it as a book to give you hope theguardian books boo


  17. I like Murdoch, she writes without inhibitions about such subjects as morality, sex and religions The Bell has a special charm, combining the three subjects mentioned before I really liked the way she portrays her characters, Michael, Dora and Nick, who, without any specific reason, became my favorite character imi place iris murdoch scrie frumos, captivant si fara rezerve, neevitind subiecte precum moralitatea, sexualitatea si viata religioasa clopotul e primul roman scris de ea pe care l cites [...]



  18. Wow This is a short novel about passion, devotion, betrayal, and the strictures of society and religion There s a frenetic energy and Iris Murdoch does not allow for many lulls in the narrative she turns from character to character to propel the plot to a thrilling trajectory Like The Sea, The Sea, some of the characters are magnified in scope beyond what would be realistic But that heightened focus does not detract This would be a good bookclub pick I m having a splendid start to the reading li [...]


  19. Last of my catch up reviews for stuff I read between June and October It is basically a Murdoch novel, a bunch of characters experience spiritual dramas, there is light and easily penetrable symbolism, lots of great sentences and love stories I generally love everything she wrote and this did not disappoint, though it is by no means her best work contrary to what I was told It is a bit like The Nice and the Good though a bit ascetic Which can be a good thing for some but not for me Still, I had [...]


  20. I think we all thought Murdoch would be difficult, intellectual In fact, she is funny, perceptive and very easy to read Despite the setting of this book 1950s, a lay community and its characters very middle class British I found the book compelling Written largely from the point of view of three of the characters Dora, Michael and Toby , the language itself conveys the personalities and failings of the characters Her handling of male homosexuality is very sensitive and believable even impressiv [...]


  21. A classic piece of literature It s almost 5 stars but I think it will take a re reading to get to 5 start status Iris Murdoch had me at hello The book starts with these lines 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 story is set in 1950 s England but could have happened today The Bell about a group of dysfunctional people which means they are just like you and me who live together in a small community nea [...]


  22. Three and a half stars Thought about giving it 4 stars, but was left with too many questions on what motivated drove some characters to their endunsatisfying for me However, if you appreciate truly creative writing, then this is worth the read for that aspect alone Here s an example Toby, as a Londoner, was not used to moonlight, and marvelled at this light which is no light, which calls up sights like ghosts, and whose strength is seen only in the sharpness of cast shadows.


  23. Having for an introduction to Murdoch such a stolidly and rigidified work as The Italian Girl and subsequently and significantly losing interest in the author s fiction, I have to wonder what changed in the meantime that had me so enthralled by this book even before I picked it up As becomes immediately apparent, and so as the book goes on, The Bell is a stirred and uncaged being offered up as a dedicated pupil of Murdoch s multifarious notions and concerns.Though Iris believed in the stricture [...]


  24. Whenever books find their way into our discussions, my friend rarely misses the opportunity to point out how time consuming reading is, since the same amount of information you gather from tens of pages of description can be visually assimilated from a movie in seconds This popped into my head than once while I was reading The Bell and made me painfully aware of the time lost, which is why I have such difficulty settling on a rating One aspect of the novel that I really liked is that there s a [...]


  25. This is an interesting book There s is much to appreciate about bells The characters are distinctly individualistic, which causes them to be sometimes reserved with their feelings The story centers on a new lay community, situated in a wood of birds and next to a walled, cloistered Abbey of nuns The history of this outpost dates to medieval times the muddy, plant tangled, still lake bears evidence of those olden days in a lost bell and a legend, which predates the dissolution of the monasteries [...]


  26. Dora Greenfield is a young woman, married to the bullying, supercilious Paul who is thirteen years her senior She has been separated from him for six months before deciding to go back to him when he invites her to join him at Imber Abbey where he is working on some ancient manuscripts The Abbey is home to an order of cloistered nuns and has a small lay religious community attached, living in a stately home The community has a wide range of members from the self appointed leader Michael, aspirant [...]


  27. I finish this book satisfied with what has come before and filled with the echoes of the emotional bouts that these happenings, and the characters that caused them, inspired This is truly a novel in the sense that it proposes characters with complicated personalities and motivations, and sets their struggles and joys against portions of society that, in turn, contribute to the overall drama It is an excellent novel for its prose, which is such a pleasure to read for its structure, which balances [...]



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