There’s an Italian verb that doesn’t have a single-word equivalent in English. The verb is plagiare and the difficulty it presents to translators is all too evident when one looks at the alternative translations offered: borrow, crib, pirate, plagiarise. The word has all these meanings but it’s also used to describe the way one person can dominate another, determining their actions and controlling their lives to such an extent that they might be said to have no independent life at all. Plagio is recognised as a crime in Italian law, and it’s been used at various times to protect the weak from a state of virtual slavery and, less transparently and with more ideological intent, those deemed worthy of protection from the evil influence of cattivi maestri, usually defined as evil for sexual or political reasons. But it’s a hard thing to define in the end, and the line that separates charisma and plagio isn’t always that clear. Most of us have been fascinated by someone at one time or another, and felt the lure of that fascination as both enriching and demeaning, as an opening-out and a closing-in. In Story of O – to take a single example of the literature of masochism – these oppositions are folded into a seamless whole.
I’ve been thinking about plagio because I’ve recently finished reading The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch, in the Penguin edition whose cover is reproduced here, which I’ve owned since the 1960s, and hadn’t read since then. It was odd to see how much of the book I remembered, odd to imagine the effect it must have had on me as a provincial schoolboy and to compare that book with the book I was reading now. Books have their own enchantment, and can take us over in ways that aren’t always beneficial, and I wonder how much the world this novel portrays – a world both recognisable and utterly foreign – helped shape the world I imagined I would find when I grew up and began to make my own life. In the opening chapter, a young woman called Annette – seen swinging from a chandelier in the cover illustration – walks out of her finishing school with the intention of educating herself. She tells the headmistress, I shall go out into the School of Life. Re-reading this, I found myself remembering entire scenes as though I’d read them yesterday. Other sections had the same effect; moving on I had the sensation that the the book, its arms wide open, was coming forward to meet me. I’m sure this is because the world it describes is the world I so fervently wanted to find myself a part of. A world of other-worldly academics and small magazines and unorthodox sexual relationships. A world in which the serpent – Mischa Fox – appears not only threatening but strangely vulnerable and guileless, as though knowledge, or whatever the enchantment might be, is both innocent and guilty. There’s a touch of Dorian Grey about it all, in a knowing post-Sartrean way, as though the portrait were as illusory as faith. A School of Life indeed.
Fox is the obvious enchanter and much of the novel is concerned with the flight from – and towards – him of most of the main characters, held in a web of their own and of Fox’s making, as anxious that others should be saved from it as they are to define their own distance and belonging. But there are so many other enchantments: the desire to crack a dead language that might have nothing finally to say but the routine business of a dead, perhaps ignoble world; the rented room in which two brothers make love to a young woman, daughter of a famous suffragette, while their mother slowly dies in the corner; the foolish, unrealisable ambitions of the brother of the woman, hopelessly tied to a review for which there is no future, whose only value lies in its resistance to Fox and his cunning, genuinely vulpine assistant, Calvin Blick; the anguish of a seamstress whose flight will be horribly interrupted and transformed, like that of Icarus, into fall. All of the characters are, in one way or another, enthralled and, inevitably, what enthrals can also, and often does, lead to disaster. But to be disenchanted is to lose faith, is to be free, and that’s something Murdoch’s characters can’t quite accept either, however genuinely threatened they might be. Their achievement of the good, in some cases, isn’t just hard-won; it also rings slightly false, as though they suspect they’ve been sold a pup.
As I do. Because, second time round, the novel strikes me as being oddly bloodless, the characters, for all their variety and charm, little more than marionettes in the hands of a very able puppet-mistress. And it’s striking that the winds of menace – alluring and chilling – should blow so resolutely from the east until one remembers that the novel was first published in 1956, the year of the brutally suppressed revolution in Hungary, and only four years after Murdoch left the Communist Party for the second time, the first time, in 1942, being for purely professional reasons. The social details, the factory in which Rosa works, for example, are creakily unreal, as is the Kafka-with-water government ministry in which another character struggles to maintain his position against the wiles of his young assistant. There’s an overwhelming sense of the novel as intellectual construct that surely wasn’t there when it was written, over fifty years ago, a construct that hovers on farce and is, occasionally, rather nasty. The suicide of one of its minor characters is particularly chilling, for all its expectedness. Which is not to say, of course, that the book has no value. It’s a novel that absolutely repays the effort, and pleasure, of reading it. But what it says may no longer be what its author hoped it would say. In the world of Goldman Sachs and Rupert Murdoch, and Silvio Berlusconi, Mischa Fox seems endearingly small fry. It’s hard to imagine anyone being plagiato by a man of his charm, or damaged by the ruthless and unpredictable charm of his wealth. And there’s something about the book that reminds me, although it probably shouldn’t, of Gabriel Josipovici’s small masterpiece, Only Joking, if only because the world the latter describes also has something about it of artifice, and of attention to a sort of reckless playfulness that was modernist then and that, in these post-modern days, still has something to say that’s both menacing and comic.