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An Accidental Man
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A+ : wonderfully well done
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
An Accidental Man is a large-scale chamber piece, a typically crowded Murdoch novel in which she shifts between a variety of loosely and more closely connected characters but rarely moves beyond this more or less closed circle. The 'accidental man' of the title is the hapless Austin Gibson Grey, and the first scene with him has him being let go from his job -- only the latest fall for him. It's a beautiful dialogue-scene, nicely also summed-up by Murdoch:
How delighted all his enemies would be. By his enemies Austin of course meant his friends.He is married, to the much younger Dorina, but she has fled their home for the time being (though: "what had happened no one could make out, least of all perhaps Austin and Dorina"). His first wife, Betty, drowned in tragic but uncertain circumstances -- suicide ? accident ? murder ? -- more than a decade earlier and is part of what lies behind his estrangement from his much more successful brother, Matthew, who has long lived in the Far East. Austin wants to avoid his brother at all costs -- easy enough when he is half a world away, but more difficult now, as Matthew has returned to England, apparently for good. Among Austin's other accidents was one in childhood in which he broke his wrist; his hand is still: "like a claw, a beastly witch mark"; it makes a convenient excuse for many of his failures -- "that was, well that was really the end of me" -- and this, too, he blames on his brother. More accidents follow in the course of the novel, including fatal ones in which both brothers yet again figure.
Austin's son Garth has also returned home, after several years studying in the United States. He's given up academic philosophy -- and finished a novel, based on a striking experience he had. His luggage is lost when he arrives, including the only copy of that novel, but he's philosophical about the loss ("it's not important. I would have torn it up anyway. It was a false sort of thing -- personal muck -- you know", he shrugs it off). As it will turn out, the luggage, and the novel, do eventually turn up, but their absence allows Murdoch to keep Garth conveniently in something of a holding pattern for much of the story.
Garth's closest friend from Harvard is twenty-two-year-old Ludwig (also Louis) Leferrier, an American who happened to be born in England and faces the difficult decision of returning to his homeland and being sent to fight in Vietnam -- his draft number is up -- or abandoning it forever and settling in England. With a cushy university position in Oxford soon his, the choice doesn't seem that hard -- indeed, he seems ready to start anew in England, as the novel opens with him proposing to nineteen-year-old Gracie Tisbourne, and her accepting.
This book's opening scene is already perfect, Murdoch striking all the right tones and the simple exchange already foreshadowing much that lies ahead for these two:
"Gracie darling, will you marry me ?"Ludwig is poised to become an academic. Gracie never showed much interest in school and isn't very well-educated -- she knows (and cares) very little, whether about current events or culture -- and in this respect seems poorly suited to be a future don's wife; she is, however, smart and remarkably self-possessed, certain of herself and her actions. While Ludwig constantly dithers -- especially about abandoning the United States -- Gracie is poised and level-headed, and very clear about what needs to be done. When her grandmother dies and leaves her entire fortune to her, Gracie calmly takes what's hers, not worried about how others expect her to handle such a situation. She doesn't, for example, exactly toss aunt Charlotte -- who has spent her last years tending to her ailing mother (and expected to be taken care of in the inheritance) -- to the kerb, and she does intend to see she's taken care of -- but only on her terms. Ludwig has his doubts about appearances -- when he learns about her new-found wealth he isn't thrilled that he will soon be wealthy but rather considers the propriety of her getting the lot and her parents and Charlotte being left out: "shouldn't you give it to them ? I mean, it's not right". But Gracie is entirely qualm-less.
Gracie's parents are well-meaning but also baffled by their daughter. Dutiful and sweet, she nevertheless essentially ruthlessly goes her own way; they certainly have no influence over her. But her parents are, by and large, content enough in their own little gossip-filled world, living quite comfortably, and they philosophically accept that there's not much they can do about Gracie. Her father, George, does feel some regrets about not pursuing mathematics, and instead becoming a mere administrator, and their marriage is terribly comfortably settled, but they are the one happily established couple in the novel -- slightly boringly so, but nevertheless.
Beginning with Dorina putting some distance between herself and Austin, An Accidental Man is full of evasiveness -- including some avoidance-maneuvers that are outright slapstick comical, such as when Matthew first comes to see his brother. But Matthew is no better, trying to desperately jog off when Gracie runs into him -- "he felt frenzy at the idea of half an hour's compulsory conversation with this coy and spritely wench" -- but Gracie proves harder to deter (and, as almost always, gets her way, generously offering the house she newly inherited not to Charlotte (who had been expecting it) or her parents (who had been hoping for it) but, at least for the time being, to Matthew). Avoidance -- which many of the characters practice (often awkwardly contortedly ...) -- often comes at a cost, too.
Evasiveness takes on other forms as well: many of the characters run away, in a variety of ways, including Dorina (running away from having run away ...) and then Charlotte. Ludwig is, all along, on the run (as it were) from the American authorities -- and he eventually also physically flees from both the easy future he could have, and then also from the slightly less perfect but still promising academic one ahead. And there are several suicide attempts .....
Accidents will happen, too, just as they have in the past. (Yet another character carries the burden of an: "unspeakable accident which had changed her from a goddess into a wreck" that happened a decade earlier.) But then:
"I am an accidental man," Austin had once said to her. "What do you mean, Austin ? Aren't we all accidental ? Isn't conception accidental ?" "With me its gone on and on." "We are all like you."Young girls fare particularly poorly: at nineteen Gracie seems to have just cleared the hump, but two younger girls that figure incidentally die in horrific accidents. Adulthood doesn't seem to hold much greater promise: Austin cuts a pathetic figure for much of the novel, but his successful and wealthy brother is also a dissatisfied man who struggles to redefine his life. Charlotte comes to realize that the world -- mostly family -- to which she has devoted herself is one she doesn't particularly like: any pleasure in the seemingly comfortable future she faces is undermined by the realization: "The only trouble is, thought Charlotte, that I hate all these people". (The radical alternative she settles on, or is bullied into, hardly proves more satisfactory, and in one of the novel's most poignant scenes she can't quite make good her escape from it.)
Gracie tells Ludwig that: "Matthew is our fate", and his presence is the pivot around which so much else -- often inadvertently, in this accident-prone novel -- turns. Gracie has no idea, however, how Matthew will finally figure in their fates as, of all people, it is his and Ludwig's that are ultimately bizarrely intertwined. Garth warns Ludwig that his uncle is a "false prophet" -- and that:
He's an entangler. He'll entangle you if he can. He's a fat charmer, charming his way to paradise.Garth has most of that right -- though maybe not the paradise part .....
Part of the beauty of the novel is in the drift of the characters, where intent or being deserving (or not) barely figure in final outcomes. If Austin is the hapless brother and Matthew the worldly success, it is nevertheless Austin who stumbles into satisfaction and Matthew who can't get the holds that seem in such easy grasp. It is the self-assured Gracie, who knows: "I have a talent for happiness", who finds her simple, straightforward plans upended: "I want us to live an ordinary life", she tells Ludwig, but the concept -- despite his being entirely unextraordinary, much more so than Gracie -- is completely beyond him.
Murdoch avoids the sententious-philosophical almost entirely in the novel, but she does sum her story up sharply in one paragraph:
When a man has reflected much he is tempted to imagine himself as the prime author of change. Perhaps in such a mood God actually succeeded in creating the world. But for man such moods are times of illusion. What we have deeply imagined we fail to control, often with what seems to be the best of motives. But the reality is huge and dark which lies beyond the lighted area of our intentions.An Accidental Man is story-full -- much of it with a nice comic touch. Austin being blackmailed by a would-be author -- another manuscript that eventually resurfaces -- is particularly well done, as are many of the smaller stories bubbling in the background, including Gracie's homosexual brother's travails. The mix of dark and brightness, depression and easygoing cheer, the (literal) dirty laundry and the fine china, is wonderful -- if at times almost too rawly real.
What perhaps impresses most about An Accidental Man is how effortlessly Murdoch shows up 'show, don't tell' as the silliest of writing advice. Large parts of the novel are told, not shown -- second-hand, in conversation and gossip, and in letters. Stories get mixed up, significant events are left to happen off-stage and then casually -- i.e. realistically, in day to day human intercourse (that's how we learn about most of what happens beyond our immediate experience) -- recounted and commented on. Often, there are numerous interpretations -- just as in real life, where different people will report news (often also obtained second hand) in different ways.
This is also reflected in much of the presentation, as Murdoch repeatedly relies both on scenes of lengthy unattributed dialogue, including party-scene chatter -- as well chapters consisting largely or entirely of letters. Here also Murdoch doesn't offer a back and forth of correspondence, but rather different letters to and from different people -- not letter-and-response. It works brilliantly.
Perhaps the one weakness of the novel -- and it is only a slight one -- is Ludwig's crisis of conscience (and the role his parents play in it). The entirely English Murdoch doesn't do Americans well here, and the communication with Ludwig's parents -- shocked that he won't face the (military) music and is ready to abandon his country, as well as being displeased that he's planning to marry an apparently frivolous heiress who is so terribly young -- stands somewhat awkwardly out. Ludwig's inner debate -- which, oddly, he does not draw Gracie into -- is at least interesting in so far as Ludwig is not entirely opposed to war (i.e. can't claim to be a conscientious objector) but he is absolutely opposed to this particular war (the interestingly never-named Vietnam conflict). But at least readers will take great satisfaction in how that situation is resolved (yes, Ludwig could not act more sillily).
An Accidental Man is a splendid and most enjoyable novel. Vividly unpleasant, in bits -- Murdoch's brutally honest depictions are something to behold -- it is also often very amusing. On the small and largest scales, it is exceptional.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 September 2018
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Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.
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