A Murdoch hero on writing, and quitting the day job

Last summer I lugged my copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince all the way from Brooklyn, through Tennessee, to Oxford, Mississippi, without so much as opening it. Probably a good thing, because that was a social trip, and when I finally started reading the novel over the long weekend that just passed, I ended up shunning people and the Internet, and was even a little surly to the cats.

In lieu of the usual Monday morning book news and chatter, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

When this story starts — and I will not much longer delay its inception — I had already retired, at an earlier age than is usual, from the tax office. I worked as an Inspector of Taxes because I had to earn a living which I knew I should never earn as a writer. I retired when I had at last saved enough money to assure myself a modest annuity. I have lived, as I say, until latterly, without drama, but with unfailing purpose. I looked forward to and I toiled for my freedom to devote all my time to writing. Yet on the other hand, I did manage to write, and without more than occasional repining, during my years of bondage, and I would not, as some unsatisfied writers do, blame my lack of productivity upon my lack of time. And I would say that even now. Perhaps especially I would say that now.

The shock of leaving the office was greater than I had anticipated. Hartbourne warned me that it would be so. I did not believe him. Perhaps I am, more than I realized, a creature of routine. Perhaps too, with scarcely pardonable stupidity, I imagined that inspiration would come with freedom. I did not expect the complete withdrawal of my gift. In the years before, I worked steadily. That is, I wrote steadily and I destroyed steadily. I will not say how many pages I have destroyed, the number is immense. There was pride in this as well as sorrow. Sometimes I felt at a (terrible phrase) dead end. But I never despaired of excellence. Hope and faith and absolute devotion kept me plodding onward, ageing, living alone with my emotions. And I found that I could always write something.

But when I had given up the tax office and could sit at my desk at home every morning and think any thoughts I pleased, I found I had no thoughts at all. This too I suffered with my bitterest patience. I waited. I tried to develop a new routine: monotony, out of which value springs. I waited, I listened. I live, as I shall explain soon at more length, in a noisy part of London, a seedy region that was once genteel. I suppose I have myself, together with my neighborhood, made my pilgrimage away from gentility. Noise, which had never distressed me before, began to do so. For the first time in my life I urgently wanted silence.

Of course, as might be pointed out with barbed humor, I had always in a sense been a devotee of silence…. Three short books in forty years of sustained effort is not exactly garrulity. And indeed if I understand anything that is precious, I did understand how important it was to keep one’s mouth shut until the right moment even if this meant a totally voiceless life. Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck….

See also the London Walks, which, according to creator Barbara Julian, explore the city through Murdoch’s novels; some of my thoughts on The Sea, The Sea; Whither Iris Murdoch’s letters; and The Elements of Iris Murdoch. (Thanks again, Chris, for steering me toward Murdoch lo these many years ago.)


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