A week in books

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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".