I am cursed with the need to always finish any novel that I start. It's a strange twist on the completist syndrome. Thus it was that midway through reading Iris Murdoch's novel, The Bell, I found myself writing the following:
It's not as if there was no "there" there - for indeed there was. It's rather that what was there was neither here nor there, neither fish nor fowl, as it were.
Now that was a kind of impressionistic response to what had been increasingly irking me as I turned the pages. Also the style of those sentences was very much in line with the kind of inbred, literary writing that I was reading.
So how did it come to that? I've read some Iris Murdoch before and liked it all, she normally writes perceptive comedies of manners and the like, irony is her thing. Also The Bell came highly recommended to me - by whom I can't remember.
Serious literature was the advertisement but limpid cleverness was all I got.
I should have seen the warning signs when it turned out that the introduction was by A.S. Byatt. Now there's another author who's hit-and-miss. I loved Angels and Insects but what about Possession? That was chock-full with literary in-jokes and mysteries that amounted to a cup of tea. Unbelievably it won the Booker Prize and a Hollywood flick on top of that.
So what then are the ingredients of The Bell?
A lay community is attached to an Abbey. Proximity to the order of enclosed nuns is meant to heighten the titillation quotient. There are errant wives possibly returning to pre-occupied husbands, love triangles, twins, adolescent confusion about the first steps of love, a swirl of homosexuality is in the mix. There are failed priests and schoolboy misunderstandings. Everyone is off balance. People can't decide where they stand or if they stand. I guess it's meant to be unnerving and that you're not supposed to like the characters.
All this sounds vaguely promising but there is neither comedy nor manners, nor much of anything.
Normally this would be a recipe for something akin to a farce. In a different medium and era, this could be like Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. But no. The denouement when it comes is worth half a smile but not even a chuckle. The inevitable "tragedy" is not tragic. The lessons learned are lost. So what was the point? Or was all this a meta-point about the human condition?