I have just finished reading An Unofficial Rose by Iris Murdoch. The book is about a complex mesh of intersecting would-be romances and the tension of the plot is held by the question, common to this genre: who will end up with who? However, the book is superbly well written with deep insight into the mentalities of the diverse characters, especially the complexity of what it means to 'be in love' and the ways there are of confronting the fundamental existential question of relating to others who may fascinate yet remain unknown. The romantic intentions of the characters lead them into plotting and scheming and make them vulnerable to rejection, torment and manipulation. The question hangs: is happiness really to be found in this manner? Murdoch has a great talent for unwrapping the internal thought and feeling processes of the characters, both male and female, young and old. One can learn a lot more about psychology from reading such a book than one is likely to get from a textbook. A line of thought that one is left to ponder upon is: Is goodness a kind of unconsciousness? There are no out and out bad characters in the book. The wickednesses are prosaic and 'normal', all inflicted by the ordinary characters. This is what makes the book profound rather than trite. It brings out how ordinary life is shot through with wayward passions and given form by their untoward consequences. In the end, most of the characters are broadly satisfied, though not always in the way that they expected or intended, and life will go on. The wheel of karma will continue to turn and it is not difficult to imagine a sequel novel with the same characters continuing in their virtues and follies and reaping the almost inevitable consequences. I enjoyed it hugely and shall read another of her works soon.
The book also tackles the tension between desire and duty, or, perhaps, not so much the tension as the fact that some people are more shaped by one and some by the other. It occurs to me, in passing, that much contemporary psychotherapy is on the side of desire. The therapist is a consultant in getting to know what your desires are and how to satisfy them or, in the jargon of the trade, how to get your needs met, the 'needs' in question not really being necessary at all, but being things that one thinks (probably erroneously, one reflects after reading IM) will make one feel better. It is certainly open to question whether such a strategy really is a key to any kind of lasting satisfaction in life. The book is wholly couched within a pre-therapy era Englishness that was undoubtedly more pronounced in the 1960s when it was written then is apparent today. Has culture declined? Nonethelessn the lessons for the heart are still as true as they were then and perhaps easier to discern than in our contemporary age of false certainties.
After reading the book one can ask oneself: which of these characters would one most like to be? One might answer, none of them, but then reflect that, in fact, one is all of them, and that is the genius of the book.