A week in books

The poet and critic Randall Jarrell once wrote an essay about the raw confessional verse that he had to assess as part of his job on a New England campus. It was, he recalled, like facing an array of hacked- off limbs - bloody chunks of pain that the owners offered up for judgement. In those conditions, a grade of "fail" would have added heartless insult to mortal injury.

Jarrell's quandary will haunt anyone inclined to doubt the stream of intimate memoirs that now flows from British presses, in a spurt of over- compensation for all those decades of stiff upper lips and mustn't-grumbles. Aids, cancers, strokes, breakdowns: the books that retail these afflictions will have flaws, as books generally do. Yet to point them out risks a charge of callous pedantry; the taint of being out of kilter with these touchy-feely times. Publishers now prefer true-life tales of ordeals to fiction that might draw on such events. The privilege we grant to secular confessions buys them a softer ride.

Still, the confessional mode, like any other, can stretch all the way from masterpiece to mush; from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Jerry Springer. On the evidence of the tender extract published in the current New Yorker, John Bayley's forthcoming book about his life with Iris Murdoch - and her descent into the darkness of Alzheimer's disease - will rank among the finest of its kind. Reading it sent me back to Murdoch's own work, in both fiction and philosophy, on the pitfalls of truth-telling. For 50 years, this pupil of Wittgenstein has explored the shifting borderland between ideas and experience, between language and life. Confessional writing often stalks these murky frontiers. And no writer could spotlight the evasions that can lurk behind revelations with more wit or clarity than Murdoch herself.

After a pithy study of Jean-Paul Sartre, she published her first novel - Under the Net - in 1954. For my money, this sparkling, footloose shaggy- dog story shows its age far less than an even more acclaimed debut from that year - Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. At one point, its feckless hero, Jake, tangles with his charismatic philosopher-chum, Hugo, about subjective truth and the words that try to snare it. "`There's something fishy about describing people's feelings,' said Hugo. `All those descriptions are so dramatic.'" For this sceptic, the attempt to package emotion with hindsight brands language as "a machine for making falsehoods". He shuns every concept and category; for "Hugo only noticed details. He never classified."

Murdoch's brilliant comedy raises nagging questions about the gap between our own, or others', mental life, and the retrospective labels that we pin on it. Yet most literary exposes never tell us the secrets of their own selective composition. (One recent story of a loved one's dementia, Linda Grant's Remind Me Who I Am, Again, counts as a notably acute exception.)

But all writers, at some level, know that they can only reach the core of personal experience via an indirect and roundabout route. Snatch at it, and you are left with a numbing cliche or an overpowering myth. Emily Dickinson (another beleaguered New England bard) knew about this long ago. "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," she wrote, because "the truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

    £28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

    £22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

    £13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

    £20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border