Review: Bruno’s Dream, by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch has a unique take on the human condition.  Her books typically feature normal, everyday people making normal, everyday decisions — but invariably some of those decisions turn out to be stupid ones, with consequences.  Most of the time, the “stupid decisions” deal with sexuality or morality.  In some ways, reading Murdoch is like watching a train wreck unfold before your eyes.  And yet, her books fascinate me, every single time.

Bruno’s Dream was Murdoch’s twelfth novel, and her second shortlisted for The Booker Prize (in 1970).  The title character is an elderly, bedridden man nearing the end of his life.  He spends his days poring over his stamp collection, reading books about spiders, and waiting for daily rituals like tea, the newspaper, and champagne.  Bruno lives with his son-in-law Danby (his daughter Gwen died several years earlier).  Danby’s household also includes Nigel, a nurse, and Adelaide, a maid.  Bruno has been estranged from his son Miles, his only living relative, ever since they fell out over Miles’ first wife, an Indian woman:

If only certain things had not been said.  One says things hastily, without meaning them, without having thought, without understanding them even. One ought to be forgiven for those hasty things. It was so unfair to have been made to carry the moral burden of his careless talk, to carry it for years until it became a monstrous unwilled part of himself.  He had not wanted Miles to marry an Indian girl.  But how soon he would have forgotten his theories when confronted with a real girl. If only they had all ignored his remarks, if only they had made him meet Parvati, let him meet Parvati, instead of flying off and building up his offence into a permanent barrier. If they had only been gentle with him and reasoned with him instead of getting so highminded and angry. It all happened so quickly, and then he had been given his role and condemned for it. And Miles said he had said all those things he was sure he had never said.  There were so many misunderstandings.

Now Miles is married to Diana, whom Bruno has never met.  Diana’s sister Lisa lives with Miles and Diana.  Bruno expresses a wish to see his son again, and asks Danby to call on Miles and convince him to visit Bruno.  Danby’s visit sets in motion a series of everyday actions and decisions that tangle all the characters up in one another’s lives.  In this story, the king of stupid decisions is Danby, who lusts after anything in a skirt and feels compelled to act on his impulses.  Miles isn’t much better, and the two of them create fantastic situations ranging from poignant to irritating to funny.  Also typical of Murdoch is the way most of the male characters are misguided and insensitive, and most of the women are rational and emotionally strong.  In Bruno’s Dream, the stronger women rise above everyone else to unravel the tangle caused mostly by Danby and Miles, and bring dignity to Bruno’s last weeks.

* FTC Disclosure: This e-book was sent to me by the publisher, Open Road Media, for review on my blog.