Let’s see: Bruno is in bed, expected to die. He peruses his father’s stamp collection (symbolic?) and his own books of spiders. Several people take care of him: his son-in-law (whose wife died and is a bit of a cad), a younger woman who cleans and cooks and keeps the son-in-law warm at night, a somewhat untrustworthy caregiver, and later two visiting women associated with Bruno’s estranged son.
There are a few other characters to complicate the narrative and one overriding theme: most of the characters seem to fall in love with one or more of the other characters, usually inappropriately.
Most of the novel goes by, tossing human complications this way and that, before you get to anything that might constitute Bruno’s Dream. Up until the last part of the book the reader might suspect that all the love and sex confusion would be revealed as just a dream (Bobby Ewing?). But then:
Bruno had a dream about God. God had hung above him in the form of a beautiful Eresus niger [spider], swinging very very slightly upon a fine almost invisible golden thread. God had let down another thread toward Bruno and the thread swung to and fro just above Bruno’s head and Bruno kept seizing it and it kept breaking. The light fragile touch of the thread was accompanied by an agonizing and yet delightful physical sensation. Then suddenly the Eresus niger seemed to be growing larger and larger and turning into the face of Bruno’s father. The face filled up the whole sky.
God would do it for me, but God doesn’t exist, thought Bruno laboriously. He began to think about the women.
Bruno, spiders, Bruno’s father, God? Where is the blind Fury with th’ abhorred shears? Is Murdoch really stating that God does not exist? Is contemplating past sexual conquests less fatiguing than contemplating God? How orgasmic is that second thread?
Iris Murdoch does an credible job of juggling all these overlapping narrative elements so it might be inaccurate to call Bruno’s Dream a muddle, but when you add in lots of rain and flooding, a box of valuable stamps that floats away, and visions of Africa spiders scurrying for the lifeboats, you end up with quite a lot of mud.
Iris Murdoch is arguably one of the greatest Irish authors of the Twentieth Century. She epitomizes the contention that all good English authors are Irish. Her themes of morality, good and evil, and sex, blend easily with the author’s careful observation of everyday life in the UK giving even the most dated of her works a universal and timeless interest.
Then again, in this age of quick-cut adventure with futuristic toys and lots of throbbing flesh, some readers may find Murdoch’s novels a bit foreign and tedious. Then again again, others may find them a very welcome respite from the too cute, too sexy, too awe inspiring slacker space operas that somehow seem popular today.
Try Iris. Remember also that Murdoch suffered from Alzheimer’s. Her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, may show the effects of the Alzheimer’s. If you are further interested in the life of Iris Murdoch, her long time husband, John Bayley, has written two interesting books showing a personal view of Iris. Also, Peter J. Conradi’s 2001 biography is generally consider one of the best in that genre.
Here is Iris Murdoch’s bibliography from Wikipedia:
Under the Net (1954)
The Flight from the Enchanter (1956)
The Sandcastle (1957)
The Bell (1958)
A Severed Head (1961)
An Unofficial Rose (1962)
The Unicorn (1963)
The Italian Girl (1964)
The Red and the Green (1965)
The Time of the Angels (1966)
The Nice and the Good (1968)
Bruno’s Dream (1969)
A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970)
An Accidental Man (1971)
The Black Prince (1973), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), winner of the Whitbread literary award for Fiction
A Word Child (1975)
Henry and Cato (1976)
The Sea, the Sea (1978), winner of the Booker Prize
Nuns and Soldiers (1980)
The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983)
The Good Apprentice (1985)
The Book and the Brotherhood (1987)
The Message to the Planet (1989)
The Green Knight (1993)
Jackson’s Dilemma (1995)
Something Special (1957)
Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953)
The Sovereignty of Good (1970)
The Fire and the Sun (1977)
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)
Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (1997)
A Severed Head (with J.B. Priestley, 1964)
The Italian Girl (with James Saunders, 1969)
The Three Arrows & The Servants and the Snow (1973)
The Servants (1980)
Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986)
The Black Prince (1987)
A Year of Birds (1978; revised edition, 1984)
Poems by Iris Murdoch (1997)